- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina is too late to challenge the ownership of river bottom on which Alcoa Inc. and its predecessors built hydropower dams going back nearly a century, a federal judge ruled in dismissing the state’s lawsuit.

Evidence demonstrates that Alcoa holds title to 99 percent of the 40-mile segment of the Yadkin River bed in question, and ownership of the rest should have been challenged decades ago, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle wrote in an order signed Monday.

North Carolina legislators since 1893 approved several measures encouraging companies to develop hydroelectric power, and that included Alcoa building its four dams to power a Stanly County aluminum smelter that once employed up to 1,000 workers.

Though it was understood that using the water on the state’s second-largest river system would mean high-paying factory jobs in an otherwise underdeveloped part of the state, the deal was never part of a binding contract, Boyle wrote.

Since the plant closed in 2007, the company has sold the electricity to commercial customers, collecting more than $175 million in revenues. Alcoa is bidding for a new federal license that would allow it to keep the dam turbines turning for up to 50 more years.

It’s not clear whether state officials plan to appeal. Messages seeking comment weren’t returned by spokesmen for state Attorney General Roy Cooper and the Department of Administration.

The heart of the lawsuit was about who will control the Yadkin River’s water flow, billions of dollars of clean hydroelectric power and prospects for future industrial development for the coming decades. With the smelter’s jobs gone, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic predecessor, Beverly Perdue, have resisted a long-term license renewal.

“The Yadkin River is a North Carolina River,” McCrory said when the lawsuit was filed in August 2013. “We should be able to use it for North Carolina water needs and to create North Carolina jobs. The benefits of the Yadkin River belong to North Carolina’s people.”

The state should have thought of that decades ago, or at least challenged Alcoa’s federal license renewal earlier, Boyle said.

“Unfortunately for the state, hindsight is often better than foresight. When the state originally granted Alcoa the right to obtain the property necessary for construction of the project, no one provided for the fact that Alcoa’s use of the property might change,” the judge wrote. “While the court is not unsympathetic to the state’s concerns, it is abundantly clear that the state has no one to blame here but itself.”

A state judge ruled last week that state environmental regulators had 30 days to decide on a clean water certificate that is key to Alcoa finally securing its license renewal. Ray Barham, the Alcoa executive responsible for securing the federal license, said the state should quit fighting “so we can begin making investments in water quality improvements and bringing other significant benefits to the region once a new federal license is issued.”

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio.

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