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Court rejects Duke Energy’s bid for longer river license

Water pours into the Catawba River from the bottom of Lake James at the Linville Dam near Morganton. A federal appeals court has denied Duke Energy’s bid for a longer federal license to manage the Catawba.
Water pours into the Catawba River from the bottom of Lake James at the Linville Dam near Morganton. A federal appeals court has denied Duke Energy’s bid for a longer federal license to manage the Catawba. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A federal appeals court has denied Duke Energy’s bid for a longer federal license to manage the Catawba River, the source of energy, water and recreation for the Charlotte region.

The license impacts recreation areas, drought management, land conservation, preservation of historic sites and more. Some agreements tied into the license were based on its length, but getting the shorter license shouldn’t create problems in York County.

“Overall, the court decision impacts some financial support and land protections, but for Lake Wylie and vicinity, the decision does not diminish any benefits,” said Heather Danenhower, Duke spokesperson. “All 40-year benefits will be implemented, and no extra 50-year benefits were targeted for Lake Wylie.”

Major recreation improvements were a highlight of the agreement reached a decade ago by Duke and scores of community stakeholders, in creating the license application. Lake Wylie would get restrooms at Buster Boyd Access Area, acreage and park facilities at Allison Creek Access Area and other improvements in Fort Mill, Rock Hill and beyond.

But the final recreation plan was approved in December, ahead of the final decision on the license term.

In January Duke had its plans approved for raising target water levels and recreation flow releases. Both parts of the license, again approved ahead of the term decision.

Danenhower said Duke will move forward now with the 40-year decision.

“We are not planning to appeal the court’s decision,” she said.

The federal license lets Duke control 225 miles of the Catawba with a series of dams and reservoirs. It gives the company authority to manage lake levels, release water downstream and decide whether piers may be built.

Duke’s initial license expired in 2008. It asked for a 50-year renewal, the maximum federal law allows. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission instead granted a 40-year term in 2015.

Duke appealed that decision, arguing that FERC had granted longer licenses to other utilities with similar hydro projects. The federal agency bases license length on the degree of development, new construction or environmental protection measures it requires.

Duke argued that it had spent $54 million on new construction it had agreed to in negotiating proposed terms of the license, and another $111 million in costs of pursuing the Catawba license.

FERC disagreed in 2016, writing that “the nature and extent of these measures are not unusual for a large-sized project like the (Catawba project), and are similar to those required in other recent licenses that received 40-year terms.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Tuesday denied Duke’s petition for review of the FERC decision.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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