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Wednesday, 10 June 2009 19:04

Jackson takes on Duke Energy

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Jackson County’s decision to take the Dillsboro dam through eminent domain is a bold next step in the relicensing saga that has been playing out for years.

Commissioners voted 4-1 Monday night to use one of the strongest powers they possess to get what they believe to be a fair deal from Duke Energy. Taking the dam through eminent domain promises a messy legal fight. But it’s the end game that matters here, and a majority of their constituents are — in a word — insulted by the mitigation package Duke has offered.

As we’ve noted before, making the removal of a community icon the centerpiece of the giant utility’s environmental mitigation effort just didn’t make many people happy. Yes, the free-flowing river will be a boon to paddlers and restore a lengthy stretch of the waterway to its “pre-Duke” status, but other considerations came into play.

This dam, small in size and in plain view of thousands of citizens every day, has gained a value aside from its hydropower production. It has become a part of Dillsboro, one of those man-made objects that give residents a sense of place. As soon as Duke began pushing the idea of removing the dam, many started speaking up to voice their surprise and displeasure.

Here’s the rub for Duke: if the giant utility had come to the table with a better mitigation package, removing the dam likely could have happened. A look around the region proves that in other cases where utilities sought federal licenses to operate hydropower plants, more tangible mitigation packages were offered.

Two relicensing arrangements nearby — Alcoa to the west and Progress Energy’s Pigeon River deal to the east of Jackson — offered big-time, lasting packages. The Progress Energy solution — creating the Pigeon River Fund — has, almost 20 years later, helped every school child in Haywood County gain intimate knowledge of the watershed, in addition to providing money for dozens of environmental and riparian efforts to help landowners and nonprofit organizatios.

Representatives from this newspaper attended many of the stakeholder meetings that led to Duke’s decision to take down the Dillsboro dam. During the relicensing process for all of its hydropower plants in Western North Carolina, Duke invited citizens, representatives of various state environmental and licensing agencies, and others to a multi-year series of meetings. Many of those supported the dam removal, and so Duke thought it was going down the right path.

A glimmer of hope for compromise arose during mediation that took place over the last couple of months. But those privy to those negotiations obviously did not think Duke offered enough.

We somehow wish the energy company could become a partner in this effort to make Jackson County a green energy leader, not an opponent. Unfortunately, it appears it will be left to the courts to determine a fair outcome.

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