Alcoa wins federal case over ownership of Yadkin River bed

Aluminum was still produced at Alcoa’s Badin Works in Stanly County in this 2007 photo.
Aluminum was still produced at Alcoa’s Badin Works in Stanly County in this 2007 photo. Staff Photographer

Alcoa has won a federal lawsuit in which North Carolina claimed it owns the bottom of the Yadkin River, where the aluminum giant wants to renew its federal hydroelectric license.

The state has fought Alcoa’s bid for a new license since the company closed its aluminum smelting works in Badin in 2010. Electricity that once powered smelters is now sold wholesale.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle had ruled in April that the Yadkin was not navigable before being dammed, undercutting the state’s claim to the riverbed.

In a second ruling Monday, Boyle said Alcoa also showed it has title to the 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin on which it operates four hydroelectric stations.

Boyle granted Alcoa’s motion for summary judgment in the company’s favor.

“We are reviewing the ruling and determining next steps,” said Crystal Feldman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The state has argued that, because Alcoa was no longer using hydropower from the Yadkin to provide jobs, it should lose its federal license.

“It appears to the court that as long as Alcoa’s use of the (Yadkin) satisfied the state, the state was content not to challenge ownership,” Boyle wrote in his order. “It was only when the state disapproved of the use Alcoa made of the (Yadkin) that the state attempted to assert its ownership interest.”

The state suffered another setback Friday, when a state judge ruled that environmental regulators illegally denied Alcoa a state water-quality certification that is needed to renew its federal license.

The judge ordered the Department of Environmental Quality to act on Alcoa’s application within 30 days.

The water-quality certification, if granted by DEQ, would say that Alcoa’s hydro project doesn’t harm the Yadkin. The certification would clear the way for renewal of the company’s federal license for up to 50 years.

The long fight over the Yadkin also involves contamination of Badin Lake from the smelting works.

Alcoa agreed in 2012 to cap sediment in two sections of the lake that were contaminated by low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, chemicals that cause cancer and other health problems.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender