Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Arkansas Public Service Commission (ASPC) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Connie Griffin filed an order Jan. 17 giving the green light to American Electric Power (AEP) subsidiary Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) to construct and operate a new 345 kilovolt (kV) transmission line from the Shipe Road station to the proposed Kings River Station, and to build a new $20-million 345 kV station on SWEPCO-owned property next to the Kings River northwest of Berryville.
Because of the pro-utility cartel bias of the APSC, the judge’s approval of a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need (CECPN) for AEP/SWEPCO was not a surprise to most people. But it did catch people by surprise that northern Route 109 was chosen. Route 109 would save the communities of Pea Ridge, Gateway and Garfield from having a large power line down the center of their towns, and avoid impacting Pea Ridge Military Park.
Route 109 goes north from Shipe Road station to Missouri, and then east along the Missouri state line to north of Gateway and then crosses the White River south of Beaver before going southeast paralleling the Kings River for two miles before it crosses the river near the proposed new Kings River substation. That line is 56 miles long, and SWEPCO earlier said it would have difficulty obtaining permission for the project from Missouri officials because of the lack of benefit to Missouri.
SWEPCO’s preferred route, the green line, Route 33, goes 48.4 miles east from the Shipe Road station following US 62 through Pea Ridge, Garfield and Gateway, and then parallels Route 109 through Beaver before going southeast to the King’s River station.
Pat Costner, director of the citizen group Save The Ozarks (STO) that oversaw a major campaign opposing the power line, said the group plans a legal appeal if the final decision of the APSC is to approve the project.
“Are we disappointed?” Costner asked. “Of course. Are we defeated? By no stretch of the imagination. We just have to roll up our sleeves and keep at it. It is time to get back in the trenches. We will take every step we need to take in order to perfect an appeal.”
STO continues to maintain that SWEPCO failed to prove that the $118-million line is needed. “With all due respect, the Administrative Law Judge’s ruling is both factually and legally incorrect,” STO attorney Mick Harrison said.
Peter H. Main, spokesman for AEP/SWEPCO, said they are pleased that the AJL confirmed the need for the transmission project and selected a route for the facilities.
“The order recognizes the need for the line to ensure future electric reliability in the region, as identified by the Southwest Power Pool,” Main said. “ It also lays out the reasons for selecting an alternate route as the best choice, given the many challenges of routing a line in this region. Since the ALJ has approved the northern alternate route, which includes segments in Missouri, we will start the process needed to complete the Missouri portion of the route.”
Missouri lawmakers representing the area strongly oppose the project.
“I don’t see there is any benefit to Missouri, period,” Rep. Bill Lant said. “I can’t believe the Missouri Public Service Commission would just sign off on it without holding some hearings. When I went to the hearing Little Rock, we were told Route 33 was the preferred route. They didn’t even talk during the hearings down there about Route 109. I have to admit it comes as kind of a surprise to me. But they are a long way from putting any poles in the ground.”
Lant said the area has beautiful scenery and most of the people who have settled in that area have done so because of its seclusion and natural beauty. And no one likes to look at big transmission towers. He said the northern route is the longest, and would cost more money.
“If is the intent to run the line there, more miles and money, just to keep people from Arkansas from being upset with ruining their view, that is pretty short sighted on anyone’s part,” he said. “I don’t know why they would think the Missouri folks would want it.”
Missouri Sen. David Sater has said he would work with local officials and members of the Missouri Legislature to determine the best way to oppose Route 109.
Main said SWEPCO is certainly aware of the many concerns about this project.
“We will work hard to complete the project in a responsible manner that will minimize the impact while serving the needs of electric consumers across the region,” Main said.
Griffin’s 118-page order granting the CECPN was filed on the website of the APSC on the project that drew widespread and heated opposition – nearly unanimous in Carroll County – on the grounds that the power line would greatly harm property values, the tourism economy, and environment of Northwest Arkansas. The judge acknowledged that 6,000 public comments were sent to the APSC opposing the project were likely a record for a proceeding before the APSC.
Doug Stowe, STO board member, said he was disappointed that the judge was convinced that the power line is needed – an assertion that STO denies. But he said the ruling is not a complete victory for SWEPCO because it creates a regulatory conundrum.
“There is some question because SWEPCO is not licensed as a utility in Missouri,” Stowe said. “State public service commissions don’t like to approve major projects that don’t provide value to their residents. It would trample through their forest and properties with no benefit to them. It would be like having a superhighway with no on ramp or off ramp in Missouri. So it makes it of questionable value to Missouri. The project may be held back for a while because SWEPCO will have to gain regulatory permission from the State of Missouri.”
Costner said STO has laid groundwork for an appeal, including filing expert witness testimony that the line is not needed and that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was seriously flawed. Stowe said an appeal is an important part of the process because all the objections raised by STO during the proceedings were largely ignored in the judge's ruling.
“The EIS was cut and paste malarkey, a complete sham that should never have been accepted by the APSC as a valid assessment,” Stowe said. “While state law requires the application to address economic impact on the small local communities, AEP/SWEPCO ignored the law on several accounts including economic impact. If the commission is not held accountable to state law, then someone has to step in and try to fix things.”
Stowe said while STO never imagined that role for itself, the process of appeal may be a way to serve the people of Arkansas and force power companies to be held to a higher standard.
“And if we can do that, we will provide safeguards for our own community against future threats,” Stowe said. “I would like to remind citizens of Carroll County that the Shipe Road to Kings River project is only a small part of a much greater network of proposed power lines that would extend north and east of the Kings River, that would still offer no benefit to citizens of Carroll County.
“Several important things came out in the hearing about AEP\SWEPCO that must not be ignored. While the power company, the commission and Judge Griffin distinguish between a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) level EIS and one that is sufficient for the APSC, there is a difference from a thorough one and one that purposefully ignores major environmental concerns.”
In testimony, Stephen Thornhill, associate project manager for Burns and McDonald, the engineering firm responsible for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that was commissioned by AEP/SWEPCO, described many areas in which environmental and economic concerns were purposefully stricken from the assessment. Stowe said the point that raises is that while the EIS may be “sufficient” to meet the shockingly low standards of the APSC, it is also far removed from any common standards of honestly.
“By deliberately underplaying, and removing real concerns, the EIS makes a mockery of all that an EIS is supposed to accomplish. It makes a mockery of the APSC's function, of the judge's ruling, and the people of the state,” Stowe said. “If power companies and the APSC are allowed to continue to operate with such low standards, all the folks of Arkansas are placed at risk.”
SWEPCO said the proposed facilities “will provide increased reliability and overload relief in eastern Benton County and Carroll County.” Opponents have alleged that the purpose of the massive industrial power line that would blight some of the most scenic areas in Northwest Arkansas isn’t to help Benton or Carroll County, but to facilitate profits for SWEPCO.
The judge’s order goes to the three-member Commission of the APSC, which can accept, modify or reject the order. If the three commissioners do nothing, the order becomes final in 30 days.
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