posted on July 16, 2010 10:55
Politicians, like most people, are creatures of habit plodding along each day going through the same routines day in and day out – then just when you figure there are no surprises left in human nature (or, at least, in politicians) somewhere deep in subterranean caverns tides shift and suddenly you find yourself staring open-mouthed at a state legislator thinking, I wouldn’t have dreamed it was possible.
Ms. Eszter Vajda – who happens to have been born in Hungary, blonde and, apparently, fearing nothing walking on two legs – is an anchorwoman at UNC-TV who’s making a documentary about Alcoa, which from 1917 until 2003 smelted aluminum down in the town of Badin on the Yadkin River.
Alcoa’s now shuttered its aluminum smelter but its waging a tooth and nail war with the Governor because its license to run four dams it built years ago on the Yadkin has expired. Alcoa wants the Obama Administration to give it a new license. The Governor doesn’t.
The Yadkin – like all rivers – is a public resource and the license for damming it is supposed to go to whoever has a plan to use the river to best serve the public interest. Alcoa says that’s them. But since there’s no longer any aluminum smelter or any jobs the Governor figures instead the license ought to go to a Public Trust that will create jobs.
This has all led to a strange coalition because Stanly County – home of Alcoa’s smelter – is a Republican County and Governor Perdue is a flaming Democrat but when it comes to Alcoa the local Republicans and the Governor see eye to eye – so Republican State Senator Fletcher Hartsell sponsored a bill to create the Public Trust. It sailed through the State Senate only to be stopped dead in its tracks in the House when Alcoa’s lobbyists told legislators the Governor was ‘taking their private property’ which was pure Socialism and even if that wasn’t exactly true (because Alcoa had agreed long ago that when its license expired the dams ought to go to whoever would best serve the public interest) it gave all the Republican legislators and a few of the Democrats the willies.
Ms. Vajda wasn’t much interested in either Socialism or Stanly County politics but she was interested in the results of eighty-five years of aluminum smelting in Stanly County, much of it done in the days before there were environmental laws – so she was happily at work on her documentary when politics (in the person of Senator Hartsell) took one of those surprising twists that leaves you thinking, Well, I’d never dreamed I’d see that – because out of a clear blue sky Senator Hartsell dropped a subpoena on Ms. Vajda telling her to bring her program and play it to his Senate Judiciary Committee.
It’s not clear whether Ms. Vajda saw Senator Hartsell’s subpeona as a windfall of publicity or a pain in her derriere but since UNC-TV is taxpayer funded she had little practical choice – she dutifully took her film over to Senator Hartsell’s committee and played it and Alcoa’s executives sitting there watching must have had heart lock because Ms. Vajda was telling the story of eight decades of Alcoa dumping cyanide, arsenic and PCBs in Stanly County and from there she moved right on into cancer rates and tainted groundwater.
She also told how when the Health Department found PCBs in Badin Lake and decided to post warning signs along the shore telling pregnant women and children not to eat the fish – because PCBs can cause cancer – Alcoa sued to stop the signs.
By the time Ms. Vajda finished playing her documentary Alcoa had gone from a victim of Socialism to a corporate villain.
And, off balance, Alcoa stumbled again.
Alcoa Vice President William O’Rourke stood up and asked Senator Hartsell if he could have his say and, as soon as he finished telling how much Alcoa loved trees and wildlife and rivers, a Senator asked him if Alcoa had ever done any studies of kidney and bladder cancer rates among its employees.
No, O’Rourke said.
Alcoa’s chickens came home to roost two days later when a Deputy Attorney General, after reading a transcript of the hearing, fired off an email to Senator Hartsell saying he had copies of two studies Alcoa had conducted into kidney cancer rates at its smelters and one of them had Mr. O’Rourke’s name on it so he didn’t see how Mr. O’Rourke’s testimony could be what he called ‘factual.’
Alcoa’s credibility which had hit rock bottom dropped again and Senator Hartsell’s bill (with a provision included about cleaning up Alcoa’s pollution) sailed through the State House with every Democrat and over half the Republicans voting for it.
So Alcoa which earns more each year than the entire state government of North Carolina was undone because a State Senator played a blonde Hungarian anchorwoman’s documentary for a Senate Committee on a Tuesday night.
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