The S.C. Court of Appeals has ruled against Duke Energy in a water-quality case that could add to delays in renewal of Duke’s federal hydroelectric license on the Catawba River.
To renew the license for up to 50 years, Duke needs a South Carolina permit showing that its hydro operations won’t affect the Catawba’s water quality.
The 2-1 appeals court ruling issued Wednesday overturns an administrative law court’s finding that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control waited too long to oppose that permit. Federal law gives the state one year to act.
The environmental groups American Rivers and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which have fought for greater releases of water downstream from Duke’s dams, joined with DHEC in appealing that finding.
Duke is evaluating its options after the ruling, spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.
It could return to the administrative law court for a trial on the merits of the water certification. It could ask for a rehearing by the Court of Appeals, or appeal to the S.C. Supreme Court.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issues hydro licenses, could also agree that South Carolina officials took too much time on the water permit and award Duke the license.
Apart from the South Carolina water permit, Duke also needs a finding by the National Marine Fisheries Service that its Catawba dams won’t jeopardize the existence of two endangered fish species: shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon.
The fisheries service said in May that Duke’s dams won’t jeopardize the fish but has not formally concluded its biological review.
Under license terms Duke has already agreed to, it will release more consistent flows of water from its hydro plants on lakes Wylie and Wateree, and raise dissolved oxygen levels in the water.
It will take similar steps at four other North Carolina dams, and begin sustained flows in two river reaches at Great Falls, S.C., from which water has been diverted for a century.
Duke also will donate 1,255 acres of recreation and conservation land in the Carolinas and contribute $7.6 million for additional land purchases, recreation and cultural preservation.