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Federal court halts re-licensing for Alabama Power’s operation of 7 Coosa River dams

A federal court has put a halt to the 30-year relicensing of seven of Alabama Power Company’s hydroelectric dams along the Coosa River basin.

“We are thrilled that the Court clearly understands that improving the license conditions is the only viable option to restore the health of the Coosa River and ensure better protections for water quality and wildlife,” said Gil Rogers, the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia and Alabama offices. “After decades of degrading one of Alabama’s greatest rivers, it’s high time to bring these essential safeguards into the modern era.”

Operation of a dam must be licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and those licenses must be renewed every 30 years.

Two environmental groups -- Alabama Rivers and Alabama Rivers Alliance -- filed a petition in 2013 alleging that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) did not complete a thorough environmental impact statement as part of Alabama Power’s relicensing and requested that the license be rewritten.

More specifically, the petition alleged that the 30-year license, which was approved by FERC in 2013, violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Federal Power Act without adequate environmental studies, without sufficient protections for threatened and endangered aquatic wildlife and habitat, and without requiring Alabama Power to maintain minimum dissolved oxygen levels in the river system for water quality.

After FERC denied that petition, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals on behalf of the environmental groups. The court ruled Friday in favor of the groups.

Jacki-Lyn Lowery, a spokesperson for Alabama Power, said the power company is disappointed with the court’s decision.

“We believe the record at FERC and the Department of the Interior both fully support the licensing decision in the Coosa River Project proceeding,” she said. “… We are currently evaluating procedural and other options available to respond to the decision. We will continue to work with all the appropriate parties going forward.”

Lowery said there are no immediate operational changes required for the Coosa River Projects, following the court’s decision.

The environmental group claims that the construction and operation of the hydroelectric dams along the Coosa River wiped out more than 30 freshwater species, while the river continues to support a number of fish, mussel and snail species that are “teetering on the brink of extinction as a result of significant ecological degradation.”

“This important ruling is a powerful example of how essential it is for citizens and conservation groups to be at the table when decisions are made about the health of our rivers,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama River Alliance. “Since the relicensing of these dams only happens every 40-50 years, we must get it right or the water quality will suffer, and we stand to lose even more species. After participating in this process for more than a decade to protect the integrity of the Coosa River for generations to come, we are ecstatic about the outcome of this case and what it means for future dam relicensing projects.”

Gerrit Jobsis, the senior conservation director with American Rivers, said his organization was also delighted with the unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals. He said the ruling reins in FERC and halts the continued impacts that would have occurred under the new federal license.

“Poorly conceived and poorly operated dams are known to cause tremendous damage to rivers and the communities that depend on them,” Jobsis said. “The Coosa River is among the worst examples of how extreme that damage can be.”