GAULEY BRIDGE, W.Va. -- Rafting outfitters see a 5.5-mile stretch of the New River below Hawks Nest Dam as a link to new growth. They want a detailed study to determine whether the 80-year-old dam can both accommodate industrial power needs and produce commercial-grade whitewater.
Known as the "Dries," the section of New River between Hawks Nest Dam and its associated power plant on the outskirts of Gauley Bridge has most of its flow diverted through a three-mile-long tunnel through Gauley Mountain.
Water channeled into the tunnel drops 167 feet on its way to the turbines at Gauley Bridge, where an average of 541,845 megawatt hours of electricity is produced annually for the West Virginia Alloys Inc. smelting plant, a few miles downriver at Alloy. The dam and tunnel were built by Union Carbide to provide electricity for the smelting plant.
The tunnel is the site of one of America's worst industrial disasters. At least 476 men, and possibly hundreds more, died from acute silicosis from inhaling dust from silica-bearing sandstone while drilling through the mountain.
"The dam was basically built without a license," said Larry George, a Charleston lawyer and former state official who now represents the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters (WVPRO).
Union Carbide was initially issued a license to build and operate the dam by the state Public Service Commission, but as the dam was under construction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only federally issued licenses were valid.
Construction proceeded without a license until 1937, when Carbide "applied for and got a 50-year federal license after the dam was built," George said. When the license came up for renewal in 1987, "none of the environmental reviews we have today were required."
A 30-year license renewal was issued that required the operator of the dam to release a minimum flow of 100 cubic feet per second into the Dries "without much study of what would best serve the aesthetics, ecology and recreational uses of that section of the river," George said.
Staff at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently began to prepare for a new license when the dam's current one expires Dec. 31, 2017. The FERC staff will eventually prepare an environmental assessment for the project that is expected to take into consideration such concerns as fishery management and stream ecology in the Dries -- as well as possible additional uses of the dam.
"This will be the first time this project has ever really been assessed for interests other than its ability to provide power to the Alloy plant," said George, a former state Division of Energy commissioner and Division of Natural Resources deputy director.
"While it's critical for the dam to make power for the Alloy plant, we want to see if it's feasible for them to share a little and have scheduled releases from the dam for commercial rafting and private boaters," said Bobby Bower, executive director of the river outfitters group.
FERC's current requirement -- 100 cubic feet per second release from the dam into the New River's channel -- "is really just a trickle," said Bower.
"But if you get 1,500 to 3,000 cubic feet per second going through the Dries, you have a fun, intermediate-level river run that would make for an ideal half-day rafting trip," he said.