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Dam removal process faces stiff opposition

The proposed removal of the Dillsboro dam on the Tuckasegee River is up for review by state water quality officers, who could make or break Duke Power’s controversial plans to tear down the dam.

The state must grant Duke Power a water quality permit before it can remove the dam. A written public comment period for the permit is currently underway.


The permit application is likely to elicit plenty of public comment given the enormous amount of attention the proposed dam removal has attracted. Opponents to removal fear a disruption of the river environment — including the fate of a colony of endangered elktoe mussels below the dam — should backed up sediment behind the dam be unleashed.

“They are placing those are risk,” said John Boaze, a biological consultant with Fish and Wildlife Associates and an opponent of dam removal. “It could go wrong and kill all the mussels all the way down to Fontana. There are better alternatives.”

Another concern among the public is the loss of the tourism appeal and historic value of the dam, although those issues don’t factor into a water quality permit.

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Others support the dam removal and the return of natural river ecosystem to a nearly one-mile stretch behind the dam that is now a slow water pond.

“Dam removal will bring the total length of unimpeded river upstream of Fontana Lake to 32 miles,” said Fred Alexander, spokesperson for Duke Power’s Franklin office.


Why all the dam talk?

Duke Power is in the midst of getting new federal permits to operate 11 dams on five rivers around the region. Duke’s current permits date back to the 1960s and will soon expire. In exchange for harnessing the public’s rivers to make hydropower, Duke Power must compensate the public with a host of environmental and recreational measures.

The cornerstone of Duke’s mitigation plan is tearing down the aging Dillsboro dam to restore a section of free-flowing river. The plan has received mixed reviews, however. Some like the idea of removing the dam, especially paddlers. Others feel the region is getting short-changed, claiming that Duke is off-loading an aging, unproductive dam it doesn’t really want anyway in lieu of other mitigation.

Even the environmental camp is split on whether tearing down the dam is a good idea, and whether Duke should get mitigation credit for it. Some environmentalists support the idea of restoring the natural river ecosystem.

Others think removing the dam would do more harm than good, upsetting a river that has long since adapted around the dam. Boaze said the dam removal should not count as mitigation for dams in other counties on other rivers.

“It is a sellout,” Boaze said of dam removal. “Say you take out Dillsboro? Does that help the Little Tennessee River? No. Does it help the Oconaluftee River? No. It is questionable how much it will help the Tuckasegee.”

Boaze proposed a fish passage around the dam instead that would allow aquatic life to move up and down river without risking dam removal.

Some environmentalists argue that even the small amount of hydropower generated by the Dillsboro dam cuts back on pollution from dirty power — such as that produced by burning coal — and should be preserved.

Jackson County, which is opposed to the dam removal, has volunteered to take over running the dam as a form of green power and wants Duke to cough up other mitigation instead. That other mitigation is namely a trust fund for environmental initiatives that would help water quality, like land conservation along the river corridor, erosion prevention or species restoration.

These are all legitimate issues for people to make in their public comments, according to John Dorney, a key player in the permit with the state Division of Water Quality. However, in Dorney’s opinion, the Dillsboro dam removal is adequate mitigation for Duke’s other dams. When an environmental trust fund is used as mitigation, it is harder to measure the future ecological benefits and whether it would sufficiently offset the impacts of the dam, Dorney said.

“We need something definitive that says ‘There’s the problem, this will fix it,’” Dorney said.

A hydropower company in Tennessee, Alcoa, recently placed 2,000 acres in a conservation easement as mitigation for its dam permits, along with a large trust fund. Dorney, however, said efforts like Alcoa’s are harder to tie to specific water quality improvements.

“There’s protection, but there’s no improvement. There’s no lift,” Dorney said. “In this case with dam removal, there is an opportunity to improve the ecological health of the river.”


State decision carries weight

Before Duke can tear down the dam, it must also get a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The federal energy commission not only has to permit the removal of the dam, but also has to rule on whether it suffices as mitigation for Duke’s other dams.

The Duke permits are on the agenda for an energy commission meeting on Thursday, July 19, which could include discussion of a timeline for making a decision.

The state permit is an extra layer, aimed primarily at water quality, but it isn’t a token rubber stamp. It carries quite a bit of teeth.

“If we deny the certification, then the federal permit is automatically denied,” Dorney said.

The state could also dictate environmental considerations Duke must comply with.

“Any conditions we impose is automatically a condition of the federal permit. We set the stage. The federal agency can be more stringent, but they cannot be less stringent,” said Dorney.

Along with the clout comes liability. If someone doesn’t like the permit the state issues, they could sue. Likewise, if the state refuses to issue a permit, Duke could sue.

That makes the state permit a key battle in the fight over the Dillsboro dam.

For that reason, Boaze said he would like the state to hold an official public hearing on the dam removal permit instead of simply a written comment period. If the state gets enough comments asking for a public hearing in lieu of the written comment period, the state will agree to hold a public hearing. Several people and entities sent in requests for a formal public hearing, but the timing of those requests was off, Dorney said. The state hadn’t formally received Duke’s permit application yet. Now they have.

“If people want to have a hearing, during this comment period is the time to tell us that,” Dorney said. If he gets enough requests for a hearing, Dorney will recommend that one be held.

Drumming up the requisite number of requests for a public hearing shouldn’t be a problem, Boaze said.

“We can generate all kinds of support for a public hearing,” Boaze said.

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