Stanly County Commissioners Rebut Alcoa Poll On The Yadkin Hydroelectric Project

Published: Mon Jun 30 2008

In its latest attempt in its struggle to secure renewal of a 50-year federal license for a monopoly on hydroelectric power from the Yadkin River in Stanly County ("the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project"), the multinational firm Alcoa has commissioned a poll that it claims shows that "the voters of North Carolina strongly believe that it is a very bad idea for the state government to take over the Alcoa hydroelectric dams and power plant." According to Stanly County Board of Commissioners, the survey actually distorts the debate by asking skewed questions deliberately designed to favor Alcoa’s position.

Alcoa commissioned the telephone poll of 500 likely N.C. voters from McLaughlin and Associates of Alexandria, Va., which involved seven questions on the Project, some prefaced by incomplete information. Stanly County Commissioners question not only the content but also the timing of the release – it came out while members of the House and Senate Conference Committees were debating a provision in next year’s budget to create the Yadkin Study Commission, even though the three-day survey had been completed on June 22. Such a commission would merely examine the issues involved in the relicensing over the next year while maintaining the status quo for the Project. Alcoa was unsuccessful in trying to stop the formation of the study commission in the Senate budget hearings.

The Stanly County Commissioners are on record as opposing Alcoa’s operation of the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project and have asked the state to intervene in the matter, saying that the state’s water rights for a public resource such as the Yadkin River should take precedence over a private firm such as Alcoa having an unlimited monopoly on it. Similar resolutions have been signed by Davidson, Randolph, Iredell, Anson, Cabarrus and Union County Boards of Commissioners, as well as the Centralina Council of Governments.

To help inform all North Carolinians of the facts at hand, the Stanly County Commissioners have released specific points to respond directly to Alcoa’s "push poll." They are set out below.

1) The questions presented wrong assumptions. The first question asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of the state government using tax dollars to take over a privately owned and operated business?" Not surprisingly, most respondents disapproved. What this has to do with the a study commission is hard to figure out. All the budget provision empowers the commission to do is study the issue and make recommendations to the General Assembly when it re-convenes next year.

Further, if the State ever created a power authority, there would be no state tax dollars used because the Yadkin Project annually generates profits that far exceed its cost – at least $10 million to $40 million annually for Alcoa, which has not been forthcoming on how much revenue it generates from selling hydroelectric power from its operations.

In fact, the survey mentions several different costs for the state, asking people whether they agree it should cost N.C. taxpayers $25 million in one question and "hundreds of millions" (their wording) in another. The poll did not specify where those figures came from while trumpeting the (not surprisingly) overwhelming opposition to them.

2) The questioning was biased rather than neutral, violating a central tenet in conducting a survey. Consider this phrasing after the interviewer which of the following statements comes closer to your own point of view: "(SOME/OTHER) people say the state taking over Alcoa’s hydroelectric power project is a violation of their property rights. Alcoa purchased the land and built the dams, has operated and maintained them for 100 years, and should have the right to continue operating the dams if it chooses to renew its license." Compare it to the other one provided: "(SOME/OTHER) people say that the river belongs to everyone and that the federal law provides a way for ownership of the dams to be transferred to the state of North Carolina and it should be owned and operated by the state government for the public interest."

The first statement is more loaded in its wording, and even worse, it is incorrect. It does not specify who the "Some/other people" are who think Alcoa’s property rights are being violated, and indeed, few people other than those connected to Alcoa have stated this position publicly. More troubling is the implication that since Alcoa purchased the land and built the dams, it automatically should retain rights to it. This opposes the concept set out by the 1920 Federal Water Power Act still in effect today, which says that no claims or titles in fee simple and in perpetuity could pass to private hands, as ownership in "navigable waters" such as the Yadkin River is vested in the United States. Instead, the government sets limits for licensing use of such waters, which is what Alcoa faces with the Project.

Indeed, there is no violation of Alcoa’s property rights, since Alcoa agreed, in order to get its first exclusive 50-year license in 1958, that it was not a violation of its property rights for the federal law to operate to order a takeover of its license and property at the end of the 50 years. By not defining those conditions, the first statement was inaccurate and irrelevant, so the second choice becomes irrelevant because it cannot be compared fairly to the first. This question alone should be discounted as an impartial measure of support for Alcoa.

3) The poll presents false arguments. Another question asked, "Do you support or oppose the state of North Carolina getting into the power business where the state would be responsible for owning, running and maintaining power plants and competing with other utilities?" If the state took over the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project, it would not be "competing with other utilities," because owning a hydroelectric project does not come with an electric distribution service territory for retail customers.

But Alcoa does have one advantage in its present operation with the Project – it is exempt from oversight by the N.C. Utilities Commission and thus does not have to follow their guidelines as do Progress Energy, Duke Energy and other companies. Again, this was not disclosed in the polling.

4) Alcoa framed questions as to what the state is doing, but not about its own operations. One question started, "At present, the North Carolina state government does not own, run or maintain any power plants." That is true. So is this one: "At present, Alcoa does not own, run or maintain any businesses in North Carolina outside the Yadkin Hydroelectric Plant." But that never came up, nor did the fact that the firm is facing several lawsuits worldwide and is considered ripe for a takeover by companies outside the United States, according to several industry experts. The questions ignored these concerns completely.

5) The survey omitted crucial information about Alcoa’s power should it receive a relicensing. Alcoa’s focus has been and most likely will continue to be on making money from its operations over generating a clean and abundant supply of water for drinking, recreation and other activities for Stanly and neighboring counties. In an era where gas runs $4 a gallon and probably will rise even more, Alcoa will receive a free source of power from the waters of the Yadkin in order to generate hydroelectricity it can sell to the highest bidder on the power grid. Alcoa also can sell the license to any third party to take over the dam operations, including foreign-based companies, and it would remain in effect for the 50-year period. These are all facts about what powers the license grants to Alcoa, yet none were discussed when questions were asked.

Reviewing this entire survey, it is obvious that Alcoa had self-serving motives to create it and crafted the language carefully in its favor. The results misrepresent the actual overwhelming and very reasonable opposition to Alcoa’s involvement in the Project. If the firm would work harder to improve and resolve its current operations with the Project rather than spend considerable effort on activities such as these, it would generate more credibility and public support for them than this biased poll.

"Three months ago, we released a statement correcting a ‘fact sheet’ by Alcoa regarding the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project," said County Commissioner Jerry Myers. "Now we are doing the same with a biased survey they commissioned. Obviously, Alcoa officials are more interested in spinning the debate than answering the questions we and other local and state leaders have asked regarding their involvement in the Project, including if and how Alcoa plans to address environmental contamination caused by their operations, and if and how they plan to protect the Yadkin as a natural resource over the next 50 years."

About This Effort:
In 1958, Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of primary aluminum, secured a federal hydroelectric license for the Yadkin Project on the Yadkin River in Stanly, Davidson, Montgomery and Rowan Counties in the Central Piedmont. In return, Alcoa promised aluminum manufacturing jobs for Stanly County for years to come. Alcoa has now essentially disappeared as a major employer in the region and shut down its manufacturing plants, but it wants to continue reaping the benefits of the Yadkin River after its license expires in April of this year. In addition, Alcoa discharged hazardous pollutants into North Carolina air and waterways for decades while harvesting immense profits from the Yadkin River, but has yet to finish cleaning up that contamination. It has filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to obtain another 50-year license. If Alcoa is successful, one of North Carolina’s most valuable water resources will be used to maximize Alcoa’s profits, instead of being used to benefit the people of North Carolina, who themselves are in dire need of affordable electricity, local economic development, and clean, adequate drinking water.

Patty Briguglio
MMI Associates, Inc.
(919) 233-6600
PR Firms Raleigh, NC

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