Duke backs down from controversial substation siteWritten by Giles Morris
After nearly eight months of wrangling with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Swain County leaders and a vocal citizens group, Duke Energy agreed to relocate an electrical substation from a controversial location — one that would loom over a Cherokee spiritual site and mar views of a rural farming valley.
Despite putting money into the site work and grading, Duke announced this week it would move from the location.
While Duke and the tribe have hailed the move as a sign of cooperation between the two entities, a citizens group fighting the substation and a major upgrade to electrical lines associated with the project stopped short of calling it a victory.
In November 2009, Duke Energy began work on a knoll in the picturesque valley located between Ela and Bryson City as the site of the new substation, which incidentally overlooked Kituwah, a sacred Cherokee site that historically served as the tribe’s political and spiritual center.
Swain County leaders imposed a moratorium on new utility projects in March of this year, partly due to the public outcry and partly because the county was miffed Duke had started grading the site without informing the county of its plans.
Along the way, citizens filed a complaint before the North Carolina Utilities Commission while lengthy negotiations played out between Duke and the tribe, which had hinted at the possibility of legal action.
Throughout those negotiations, Duke maintained that one of the principal reasons for the line upgrade and, consequently, the substation was the need to provide more power to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which is in the midst of a $600 million expansion project.
Duke’s announcement that it will move the substation to one of two alternative sites by the end of the year solves the point of conflict with the tribe over the cultural impact on Kituwah.
Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, used Duke’s announcement as an opportunity to reinforce the tribe’s intent to vigorously protect Cherokee cultural sites.
“It is my honor and responsibility to protect our land base and our Cherokee culture,” Hicks said in a release prepared by Duke and the tribe. “The land of Kituwah, our mother town, is central to our identity as a tribal nation and I will do everything in my power to ensure this sacred site is protected.”
But Hicks also reinforced his appreciation of Duke’s efforts to work with the tribe regarding the issue.
“I appreciate Duke Energy’s understanding of these sensitive issues and their hard work to identify alternate locations for the electrical station,” Hicks said. “We are pleased that through the cooperation with Duke Energy, we will continue to have reliable electricity and the landscape around Kituwah will be protected.”
New substation site
Duke Energy has offered Swain County $400,000 for a 13-acre site in the county industrial park. In addition to the $400,000 price tag, Duke Energy would give the county $1.1 million to help defray the cost of relocating the county IT building, which has been in the development stages for nearly a decade.
Swain County commissioners voted unanimously on Monday to grant Duke a six-month property option on the site for $15,000.
Duke has another site under consideration as well in the Sheppard’s Creek area. Duke announced that it would decide between two alternative sites by the end of the year.
Should Duke move forward with the purchase of the site in the industrial park, the company would have made up for its lack of communication with the Swain County board that led to the imposition of a county-wide moratorium on utility projects.
Line upgrades still at issue
With the county and the tribe appeased, Duke still has the citizens group to deal with, however.
Katy Travitz, spokesperson for Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley, said her group will continue to pursue a complaint before the North Carolina Utilities Commission that alleges Duke Energy broke the law by not filing the proper paperwork for their line upgrades.
“I don’t see it as a victory,” Travitz said. “I think they made a smart decision, and there’s still work for them to do.”
The new substation is part of a massive upgrade of Duke’s West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with a 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers and constructing new substation facilities to accommodate the increased amount of power.
A complaint filed by Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley is still playing out before the state utility commission. It essentially alleges that Duke Energy intentionally misrepresented its project as an upgrade when it is actually a new infrastructure project that should have triggered a long list of requirements including public hearings.
“We believe Duke broke the law, because they didn’t file for the certificate to do the work,” Travitz said. “Moving the substation doesn’t satisfy the complaint, and we intend to stay the course.”
The citizens group represents both enrolled tribal members with a cultural interest in protecting Kituwah, as well as Swain County residents whose properties are directly affected by the line upgrade.
But other citizens have been a part of the discussion, too. Nate Darnell, a farmer in Swain County who appealed to the board of commissioners to implement the moratorium, said moving the substation from the site near Kituwah to an alternative location over the hill in Shepard’s Creek doesn’t solve the problem that drew him into the debate.
Darnell saw the issue from the perspective of the impact it had on the environment and the agri-tourism businesses in the valley.
“I like the idea that they’re looking at the industrial park,” Darnell said. “You got to have this stuff and if you’re going to have it, you need to localize it so you can regulate it more easily and consolidate the impact it’s going to make.”
Cultural site views saved
If there is a clear winner in the scenario, it’s the Eastern Band, which preserved its cultural legacy without jeopardizing the supply of power to its growing casino complex.
The tribe’s historic preservation officer, Russ Townsend, said Duke’s willingness to negotiate over a cultural viewshed sets an important precedent.
“I hope it’s an example to other agencies that we deal with that our concerns are legitimate and there are often alternatives to finish a project without undermining our cultural concerns,” Townsend said.
Townsend said the concept of viewscapes and cultural landscapes have been a part of regulatory discussions dealing with the way federal agencies approach cultural sites like the Gettysburg battlefield, but they’ve never been a part of discussions with private companies.
“I think if there’s a precedent set it’s that there wasn’t a federal agency that made Duke come to the table,” Townsend said.
Duke’s narrative of the events in the release announcing the company’s intent to move the substation acknowledges the cultural issues raised by the tribe, but it also defends the line upgrade as a necessary attempt to meet the needs of its customers.
“Initially, a new electric tie station was planned at a site within view from Kituwah, an ancient and sacred gathering place of the Cherokee people that is adjacent to the Tuckaseegee River, east of Bryson City, N.C.,” the company’s statement read. “After hearing concerns from the Cherokee people about the initial site, the company worked for several months with tribal and other community leaders to identity alternate locations.”
Brett Carter, president of Duke Energy Carolinas, stated the company’s position succinctly.
“Our customers expect and rely on Duke Energy to provide the electricity that powers their homes and businesses,” said Carter. “Finding a new location for this important infrastructure allows us to deliver on our commitment to customers, without impacting the landscape around Kituwah.”