A federal judge ruled this week that boats could not navigate North Carolina's second-largest river system at the time of American independence, a decision that helps Alcoa Inc. as it tries to prove it owns the riverbed on which some valuable hydroelectric dams were built.
Judge Terrence W. Boyle said late Wednesday that the 40-mile section of the Yadkin River where Alcoa Inc. operates four hydropower dams was not navigable at the time the United States was born. States took control of their navigable rivers when they joined the union, so Boyle's ruling is a setback to North Carolina proving it still owns the riverbed.
Boyle opened a nonjury trial on Tuesday to hear a 2013 state lawsuit challenging whether Alcoa had property rights to build the dams. The dispute is about who will control the Yadkin's flow and billions of dollars of clean power for the coming decades.
Boyle's ruling means the trial now is likely to take up whether Alcoa can show property records proving it owns the riverbed the dams were built on.
Lawyers for both sides dug deep into the state archives and the Library of Congress to review accounts describing the river's navigability dating to before and soon after North Carolina became a state upon ratifying the Constitution in 1789.
The evidence included letters from an American Revolutionary general, expressions of sour grapes from Moravian settlers in the 1750s disappointed the land they bought near present-day Winston-Salem offered no navigable routes, and an 18th century landowner describing how he was able to use the Yadkin to ship his crops.
Alcoa's dams powered an aluminum smelter for most of the 20th century and employed hundreds of workers. The workers were laid off, and the plant closed in 2007. The company has sold the electricity to commercial customers since then.
With the jobs gone, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic predecessor, Beverly Perdue, have resisted a new federal license for Alcoa that would allow it to continue operating the dams for up to 50 years. Alcoa sold a similar hydropower complex on the North Carolina-Tennessee border for about $600 million in 2012, seven years after receiving a new 40-year license and three years after shutting down production at its smelter in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.