Friday, November 21, 2014

Judge's orders set stage for N.C. v. Alcoa trial

A federal judge has issued a couple of orders in North Carolina's legal wrangle with Alcoa over ownership of the bed of the Yadkin River, in a prelude to a trial early next year.

The aluminum giant and the state, you'll recall, have fought for years over renewal of Alcoa's hydroelectric license for 40 miles of the Yadkin east of Charlotte. The state has argued Alcoa doesn't deserve free access to the state's resources after shuttering its Badin smelting plant.

Things got more interesting when North Carolina asserted that the state, not Alcoa, owns the riverbed under the Yadkin. Alcoa, which dammed the river nearly a century ago, claims it has longstanding title.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle issued an order Thursday on motions for summary judgment from both sides, granting some and denying others. He instructed both sides to be ready for trial on Jan. 15.

Ryke Longest, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University's law school, said Boyle made a couple of noteworthy decisions. Longest represents the Yadkin Riverkeeper, a former party to the case.

Most importantly, he said, the judge granted North Carolina's motion that it made a prima facie -- correct until proven otherwise -- case for ownership of the riverbed. That shifts the burden to Alcoa to prove at trial that it holds title.

Boyle denied Alcoa's claims that the company owns the riverbed by virtue of its long occupation there. He also ruled against Alcoa's argument that the river was not navigable at the time North Carolina became a state. States own the beds of navigable rivers, other courts have held.

In a second order, Boyle denied Alcoa's motion to strike the affidavits of four expert witnesses for the state, meaning they will likely be able to testify at trial.

"What it means is we're going to have a very interesting trial starting in January," Longest said.