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NC Senators Subpoena Video of Alcoa Plant

Wed, 07/07/2010 - 8:06am
EMERY P. DALESIO, Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Senators critical of Alcoa Inc.'s effort to win a new federal license to keep operating hydroelectric dams got a look at news video they took the unusual step of demanding hours before it began airing Tuesday.

About a dozen members of a Senate judiciary committee watched the footage turned over by University of North Carolina Television after the panel issued a subpoena last week demanding a reporter's unaired work.

The demand to North Carolina's public television network came as Alcoa's legislative opponents ramped up efforts to help Gov. Beverly Perdue's bid to stop Alcoa from relicensing a series of electricity-generating dams along the Yadkin River.

Legislation that would have created a public trust responsible for managing the river and its dams if Alcoa loses out was weakened Tuesday. The move was greeted with approval from the Pittsburgh-based company's vice president of environment and sustainability.

"So far, so good," Alcoa's Bill O'Rourke said, reserving further comment until the company could study the new state corporation that would seek environmental law enforcement.

Alcoa is trying to renew a 1958 federal license to operate the four dams, which powered an aluminum plant in Badin it closed years ago. Alcoa now collects revenues of about $40 million a year selling the electricity.

Legislative committees rarely use their subpoena power except for ethics investigations.

UNC-TV lawyers decided not to fight the subpoena because it is a public agency and may not fall under North Carolina's 1999 press shield law protecting reporters from revealing information that hasn't been printed or broadcast.

Committee chairman Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, said the panel subpoenaed the work of UNC-TV reporter Eszter Vajda to get the information quickly. A decision by lawmakers on what to do about Alcoa's hydroelectric dams is expected before the Legislature adjourns later this week.

The video includes interviews with a local resident who said he buried hazardous waste from the shuttered aluminum smelting plant on the company's property, a former Alcoa worker who said he saw pollution flowing from the site into the river, and a company consultant who said arsenic detected in the water is naturally occurring and didn't come from the plant's waste.

Hartsell's committee turned from the video -- which UNC-TV said it would air in installments over three nights beginning Tuesday -- to grilling O'Rourke. He said Alcoa has spent $10 million in clean-up efforts at the closed plant.

"We believe we've cleaned that up," O'Rourke said. "We're proud of our clean-up record."

Later, under questioning by Hartsell, O'Rourke said Alcoa estimates total clean up costs for the plant at $50 million.

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