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DHEC denies Duke permit

COLUMBIA--Environmental leaders and the state attorney general call Thursday's decision against a Duke Energy relicensing plan a strong step forward for the protection of Catawba River water, though the company believes it could have the exact opposite impact.

On Thursday South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control unanimously denied a Duke Energy certification that would allow the company to complete its hydroelectric relicensing process to operate on the Catawba River another 30-50 years. Duke manages 11 reservoirs and operates 13 hydro stations on the Catawba, with five stations in South Carolina and eight in North Carolina.

"We felt and still feel that our comprehensive licensing agreement, we met that criteria," said Andy Thompson, spokesman for Duke. "This is obviously an additional step we'll have to take and deal with."

The 4-0 vote Thursday followed a preliminary approval in May, which was challenged by environmental groups American Rivers and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. Those groups contended that the approval would not require that Duke guarantee the release of minimum flows necessary for human consumption and aquatic life in South Carolina.

"DHEC hasn't provided the citizens of South Carolina with reasonable assurance that Duke's dams will provide necessary water flows for fish and wildlife, and a healthy river," said Gerrit Jobsis, regional director for American Rivers. "South Carolina must be assured protection for the clean water and economic benefits that a healthy river provides."

Two years ago American Rivers named the Catawba the most endangered river in the country based on the uncertainty of future supply with more users, interbasin transfers and other drains. The group wants more water guaranteed coming into South Carolina, something also called for by state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

"We're delighted," McMaster said of Thursday's decision. "We think, of course, that was the right decision."

McMaster petitioned DHEC to postpone or deny the Duke request to help the state in its current U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit against North Carolina. McMaster sued North Carolina after that state approved an interbasin transfer from the Catawba north of the state line in January 2007, claiming the river's "equitable apportionment" suffered from the decision.

If DHEC maintained its May decision Thursday, McMaster's argument that the existing water allocation system is flawed would suffer, he said.

"Those decisions could have hurt us in our arguments," McMaster said. "If we aren't able to protect the river and the flow of water that comes into South Carolina, it could have disastrous consequences for many, many generations."

Yet Duke said the original DHEC decision, which stated "there is reasonable assurance" that Duke's plans meet the Section 401 water quality standards of the Clean Water Act, should be maintained.

"Essentially they granted approval based on a lengthy and in-depth analysis," Thompson said. "We believe that in our proposed operating model there will be increases to the amount of flow under the current operating license."

Duke contends that the new relicensing agreement applied for actually increases the flow of water into South Carolina during normal conditions, adding 1,100 cubic feet per second of water--27 percent of the long term average flow--from North Carolina dams.

"That's not true today," Thompson said. "We don't operate like that today, but that's how we propose to operate them into the future."

The increased flows called for by McMaster and the environmental groups "would potentially put the region in jeopardy" during times of drought, Thompson said, by keeping the company from storing water in its reservoirs. Duke expects a written account of the decision within 30 days, at which time Duke will have 30 days to respond.

"Certainly one option would be to appeal it," Thompson said.

Along with the May approval in South Carolina, Duke's plan received its 401 water quality certification in North Carolina last November. The company continues to operate its dams and hydro stations under its previous license until agreements can be reached for the new license.