Duke Energy Corp. is finding out that altering the landscape of western North Carolina can be messy business. The Charlotte-based utility had to fight opponents for five years before demolishing an 83-year-old hydroelectric dam in Dillsboro earlier this year (Regional Report, August 2009). Residents argued it was vital to tourism. Now Duke’s effort to build an electric substation and transmission towers on the Tuckasegee River in Swain County is being short-circuited by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. This time, most concerned say the odds don’t favor Duke.
“What they want to build is within just a half mile and in plain sight of Kituwah, our mother town,” says Russell Townsend, historical preservation officer of the 13,000-member tribe. Lore holds that the Cherokee great spirit handed the tribe its eternal flame there 10,000 years ago. “It’s our most sacred site. We’re disappointed Duke didn’t consult with us beforehand.”
Duke’s reply? Let’s talk. “Our focus is on working with the Eastern Band and the Swain County commissioners to identify an alternative site,” spokesman Jason Walls says. The substation and transmission towers that will replace less-conspicuous poles are needed because of rapid growth in western North Carolina. If they’re not built, the company warns, blackouts are possible.
The Cherokees criticize Duke for cultural klutziness, but they acknowledge that they have helped create the controversy. One reason more capacity is needed: growth of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel, which is in the middle of a $633 million expansion and is already the largest employer in Western North Carolina. “It’s ironic that because of that growth, our most sacred site is in jeopardy,” Townsend says. “Hopefully, we can rely on Duke’s claim that it’s a good neighbor to the tribe and work it out.”
Swain County has offered to let Duke build the substation in the county’s industrial park near Bryson City, and Duke is willing to consider alternatives, including that one. But Walls says another site would restart the engineering clock, necessitate acquiring miles of new right of way — many landowners have already expressed opposition to selling — and delay the project for years. Duke wants to finish it by summer 2011.
The state Utilities Commission is investigating complaints about Duke’s plan but hasn’t ruled, partly in hopes that Duke and the Cherokees work out a solution. Townsend says the Eastern Band is doing what it can to resolve the conflict. “We’ve been conversing with them about a better location, and we’ve looked at several plots the tribe owns that might be suitable. About 5 to 15 acres is needed. They’re evaluating them.”