Crowd tells legislators 'just say no' to SWEPCO power line
Becky Gillette

A sea of people wearing orange “No SWEPCO” t-shirts greeted Sen. Bryan King and Rep. Bob Ballinger at a forum last Thursday at the Inn of the Ozarks Convention Center. About 200 people opposed to the proposal by American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) to install a massive 345-kiloVolt (kV) transmission line running about 50 miles through the Ozark Mountains were united in their resistance.

“I’m excited to see this kind of citizen involvement,” Ballinger said. “Citizen engagement makes for good government.” He said the citizen opposition that has led to the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) approving a request from Save the Ozarks (STO) for a rehearing has been amazing, and “somewhat unprecedented.”

King agreed, saying most people don’t realize the impacts of a giant project like this until the bulldozers show up, and then it is too late. He spoke of an earlier Entergy power line project near Berryville where only 50 people showed up in opposition, and the project sailed through to approval.

King spoke about two bills legislators plan to file that would deal with citizens facing confiscation of their lands by eminent domain. One would reform eminent domain laws, another would establish an Office of Public Council within the APSC to advocate for citizens impacted by utility projects. But some in the audience were not satisfied with actions of the two legislators representing this area that would be impacted by a SWEPCO power line that would carry eight to 16 times more electricity than needed in Carroll County. The legislators were asked why they hadn’t taken a position against the project earlier, rather than waiting until now when it has been 14 months since the project was announced.

King said he had come out against the proposal, and his position had been printed in a Eureka Springs Independent story in 2013. Later when others were speaking, a woman from the audience called out to King to put down his cell phone and listen. King responded that he was trying to look up the article detailing his objections to the project.

Ilene Powell said 14 months after the SWEPCO attack on Northwest Arkansas, politicians have been non-responsive, non-supportive and somewhat combative. “We are aware of AEP/SWEPCO contributions to some of those elected officials,” Powell said. “Thanks for calling this forum, even if we had hoped it would have come sooner. Are you now prepared to work with the community and STO going forward and make a donation to STO? Please clarify how you will proceed to show your support of the constituents you represent.”

Wildlife artist Susan Morrison challenged the legislators to show leadership and that they stand behind the people. “You need to have your foot on the neck of the Public Service Commission and you are not doing that,” Morrison said. “Every person in this room knows that. Show courage. Do what you need to do.”

“We haven’t heard from you about this,” said Eureka Springs alderman Mickey Schneider. “We need you to stand up and tell them no.” She held up a photo of her two-year-old granddaughter, Cadance Grace “Bunny” Clark, and said if the SWEPCO project is approved, she and her granddaughter will be the first to be chained to a tree to stop the bulldozers.

Both legislators have accepted campaign contributions from SWEPCO in the past, but said they have not accepted any money from SWEPCO since the power line project was announced.

King said he agrees commissions like APSC can end up ignoring the public, and he hoped no one would have to be chained to a tree to stop the project. He said he had been trying to be a liaison for the people with the APSC and worked with APSC Director John Bethel to make sure the public hearing in the summer of 2013 would last as long as needed to get public comments rather than the usual hour-and-a-half allotted to public comments for a project like this. The public hearing went on for two days, and still not everyone who wanted to speak was able to do so.

King said he guaranteed that the APSC had never seen this kind of united opposition to the project in the past, and Ballinger said it might be true that he should have been a whole lot louder a whole lot sooner. “You have been excited and loud, and it has been very effective,” he said.

Later in the meeting he took a picture of the audience that he said he Tweeted. “I’m not as involved as I should have been. I’m against it 100 percent,” he said.

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