Archived Opinion

Congressmen should weigh in on relicensing

When a room full of elected officials pleaded with a U.S. senator and a congressman last week to step into the fray over Duke Power’s plan to manage waterways in three western North Carolina counties, they were arguing for the regular folks who use these waterways but often don’t take part in politics. We hope those politicians were listening.

Western North Carolina citizens need our congressional leaders to take action to make sure the citizens get the best possible deal out of the 40-year licensing agreement the federal government will likely sign with Duke sometime this year. It’s too to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which will issue the new licenses to Duke — to backs off a self-imposed July deadline for issuing a final environmental assessment, but the lawmakers could make sure that the federal agency is at least listening to their constituents.

It was about six years ago that Duke Power began holding public hearings as the first step in the process to renew licenses to operate its 10 hydropower plants on the Tuckasegee, Little Tennessee, Nantahala and Oconaluftee watersheds. Out of those hearings and a subsequent stakeholder process — where state and federal management agencies, environmental and user groups took part in negotiations — came a proposal by Duke for managing these waterways.

Duke’s proposal, however, did not satisfy a whole lot of people. Among those are the local governments for Macon and Jackson counties and a number of the municipalities within these counties. The critics of the original Duke plan think the huge multi-billion dollar utility company is not offering enough mitigation for the right to harness the public’s waterways and turn a profit. In fact, many organizations, local governments and individuals feel the same way, and some of those have developed an alternative proposal to that developed by Duke power during its original stakeholder process. They want more recreational opportunities and more money for environmental initiatives to improve water quality and habitat. They also want the utility to back off plans for taking out the Dillsboro Dam.

The very nature of these proceedings demands oversight by congressional leaders. Local county commissioners — whether they are retired educators, businesspeople or whatever — don’t have the expertise to do battle with a huge utility company that regularly slogs through the maze of the federal bureaucracy. Asking local leaders to make sure their constituents get a fair deal during this relicensing is akin to throwing in the towel. There’s just not much of a chance they will succeed.

Jackson County has hired an attorney to argue its case, and the opponents to the Duke plan have authored their own proposal. Unfortunately, the initial Environmental Assessment released by FERC took very few of these recommendations.

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No one is accusing Duke of foul play. The issue is whether citizens in this region are getting the same kind of mitigation that citizens in other parts of the country are getting during relicensing. Evidence has been offered that Duke is not offering enough. Duke, of course, will try to get the best deal it can for its shareholders. By the same token, the citizens who live and work near these rivers are the shareholders that elected leaders are supposed to be working for.

This ordeal has been a long one, but those who are involved need to remain vigilant. The end is in sight. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, and Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, need to pull whatever strings they can to make sure their constituents are treated fairly.

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