What’s in a permit?

Duke Energy must get a permit from the N.C. Division of Water Quality before it can tear down the Dillsboro dam.

There has been a good deal of confusion over whether the state already issued this permit or not — with Duke, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jackson County’s lawyer and even the Division of Water Quality itself under oscillating assumptions as to whether a permit is still pending or has been issued.

At a public hearing over the permit last week, John Dorney, a water quality officer with the Division of Water Quality, cleared up the confusion. The state has indeed granted Duke a permit related to the Dillsboro dam, but not to tear it down.

So what has been granted? A permit for Duke to “surrender its license” to operate the dam, Dorney said.

Power companies are licensed to operate dams, which are considered a public commodity of sorts. The license is akin to a long-term lease by the power company. Three years ago, Duke applied for a permit from the state to “surrender its license” to the Dillsboro dam. The state granted the permit. But “surrendering its license” to the dam — giving up its lease in a sense — is not the same as “tearing down” the dam, Dorney said. Duke still needs a permit from the state, known as a 401 water quality certification, to actually tear down the dam, Dorney said. Duke has applied for that permit just this year.

Duke has used the confusion over semantics to its advantage. Duke claimed in filings to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it had already clearance from the state to tear down the dam. Duke recently issued a press release telling the public it had received the necessary permit from the state to tear down the dam — in the midst of a recent public comment period by the state to solicit public opinion on whether to issue the permit.

— By Becky Johnson

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