- A U.S. Court of Appeals formally vacated Alabama Power's five-year old license to operate seven dams on the Coosa River on Monday, based on a decision issued in July, and media buzz has led to speculations about whether this will affect operations.
- The court sided with a 2016 lawsuit against the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), which argued the regulators did not take sufficient steps to protect against the dams' environmental impacts. The court agreed, saying FERC "declined to factor in the decades of environmental damage already wrought by exploitation of the waterway and that damage's continuing ecological effects" in its review of the license.
- The dams, which supply about 3% of customers power and half the utility's hydro, will continue to operate and generate electricity under the old licenses while the issues are addressed, utility officials say. Alabama Power will address the court's concerns after guidance from DOI, FERC, a utility spokesperson said.
Alabama media is abuzz about the utility's hydro licenses, forcing utility officials to explain there will be no operational impact.
"It's a little confusing ... some people thought it is like if you lose your license and can't drive. Some people got confused, and thought we were shutting down the dams," Alabama Power spokesperson Michael Sznajderman told Utility Dive.
That isn't the case, and the utility will continue operating under the old license while the process — admittedly, unusual — plays out. The dams operated for decades and the most recent license is only five years old.
"Lake levels are fine, no one will notice anything different, everything is rocking on as normal," Sznajderman said. For now, the utility is awaiting guidance from FERC and DOI, the parties in the suit.
"We anticipate they will be communicating with us about data, field studies, whatever they think is needed so we can move forward, essentially resubmitting an application for a new license," Sznajderman said. But he added, "we believe it is a relatively unique situation, where a license granted five years ago was thrown out by the court."
The utility will need to ultimately address the court's concerns. The conservation groups, American Rivers and the Alabama Rivers Alliance, sued FERC, and whatever adjustments are made to the license will require changes on the utility end.
New mitigation measures, such as aerators to improve dissolved oxygen levels, changing scheduled water releases to keep oxygen levels up and fish ladders to assist in migration, could be used.
Oxygen levels in the river, decreased by the dams, were a key point of contention for environmental advocates: federal regulators required Alabama Power to achieve a constant minimum dissolved oxygen level of 4.0 milligrams per liter — but only while the dams were generating power.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, however, was unimpressed with regulators' assessment.
"A review of the licensed project's impact on the environment and endangered species documented that the project would cause a 100% take of multiple endangered mussels, a large loss of indigenous fish, and perilously low dissolved oxygen levels for substantial periods of time," the court wrote.
"Nevertheless, the Commission concluded that licensing the generation project would have no substantial impact on either the River's ecological condition or endangered species," the opinion continues.
The federal agency had relatively little to say in response.
"The court vacated the licensing decision, and remanded to the agency for further proceedings. Beyond that, I don't have anything further to add," an agency spokesperson told Utility Dive via email.
In a July statement following the decision, Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, said the case illustrates the importance of the environmental review process.
"Since the relicensing of these dams only happens every 30 to 50 years, we must get it right or the water quality will suffer and we stand to lose even more species," Lowry said. "We are ecstatic about the outcome of this case and what it means for future dam relicensing projects."