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The Kinzua Dam near Warren, PA
The Kinzua Dam near Warren, PA

Senecas fight for Kinzua dam

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In southwestern New York, a battle is shaping up for one of the Northeast's great hydropower complexes. The Kinzua dam was built 45 years ago by the federal government. In the process, dozens of homes and sacred sites belonging to the Seneca Indian Nation were flooded.

Today, the Seneca Nation is making a bid to take ownership of the dam. It's created an energy company from scratch. And it's investing heavily in its bet to beat out the company that currently runs the dam in the federal dam relicensing process. As the Innovation Trail's Daniel Robison reports, tens of millions of dollars are at stake.

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Righting wrongs

The Senecas claim that the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania was illegally built on their territory in the early 1960s, when the tribe was forced from thousands of acres of land near the Allegheny Forest.  

“Homes were burnt down so [Senecas] couldn’t return. Bodies were dug up," said Dave Kimmelberg, a Seneca who is heading up the Nation's energy efforts. "It was really a pretty horrific time period for the Seneca Nation."

The fight over the land was so intense that it ultimately reached the desk of President John F. Kennedy.  He sided against the Senecas, who lacked political and economic influence, according to Kimmelberg.

"Frankly we just got run right over,” he said.

Johnny Cash even wrote a song about the incident.

During that traumatic time, Basil Williams, Kimmelberg's uncle, was president of the Nation and now Kimmelberg is leading the charge to win control of Kinzua.

The dam generates up to 450 megawatts of electricity every year for the Pittsburg area.  It's currently administered by First Energy, but the Senecas have created their own company, Seneca Energy, and are investing heavily in their claim to operate the highly profitable facility.

“It would be a first step in really righting some serious past wrongs,” Kimmelberg said.

Bureaucratic battle looms

Ohio-based First Energy's 50-year contract to operate the dam expires in November of 2015. Seeing an opportunity, Seneca Energy is throwing its hat in the ring for the new license.

But First Energy isn’t going down without a fight.

“When you look at all the facts, we believe that makes a very strong case as to why we should continue to have the operating license for this facility,” says Mark Durbin of First Energy.

The Fortune 500 company has run the dam since its ribbon cutting in 1965. And while exact figures aren’t public, Durbin admits the corporation has generated hundreds of millions of dollars running the dam.

Operating the facility is complicated, and according to Durbin, First Energy has a near spotless track record in doing it.

The rules of relicensing also favor them.

“If there are what they call 'insignificant differences' between the competing applications, the existing licensee historically has received that new license. They call this the ‘incumbent preference',” Durbin said.

Leaving little to chance

The Senecas have their own sort of incumbency. Kimmelberg admits that some could see the Nation's bid for the dam as an attempt at reparations but he said it's impossible to ignore the historical context surrounding control of the dam.

“If there’s one group you can count on to stay in the area and that’s committed to the area and committed to economic development, it’s the Senecas," he said. "We were the first here and we’re probably going to be the last out."

Both companies are leaving little to chance. Through an army of lawyers they will lobby the federal Kinzua Dam Re-licensing Commission and the Senecas have just four short years to try to build credibility by hiring expertise for their upstart company.

Perhaps their biggest obstacle is the fact that the company has no experience operating dams or any other large energy project, but Kimmelberg said that won't stop the tribe.

“We didn’t have any experience running casinos, either, when we first got into it," Kimmelberg said, "but we run close to a billion dollar a year, top-line casino business these days."

To set itself apart from First Energy, Seneca Energy has promised to reinvest profits from the dam into the Nation’s economic development. Kimmelberg said that’s part of a long-term effort to transition the Senecas away from cigarettes and gambling.

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