Thursday, April 25, 2013
It has been described as a David and Goliath battle with property owners in Northwest Arkansas who are in the path of a proposed 48-mile, 345 kilovolt (kV) transmission line proposed by the Southwest Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) scrambling to protect their land from being clear cut and sprayed with herbicides for the line they say is unneeded and would destroy the environment, scenic views and property values.
Countering a wealthy corporation that can spend huge sums on campaign contributions and lobbying is an uphill battle. But opponents of the proposed $116.7 million power transmission line have formed an organization, Save the Ozarks, which has hired an attorney from Heber Springs, Richard Mays, who has a successful track record in taking on SWEPCO.
SWEPCO has about 500,000 customers, and is a subsidiary of American Electric Power (AEP), the largest electricity generating utility in the country with net annual income estimated at $1 billion. The organization Public Campaign says AEP pays more on lobbying than it does on federal taxes. “Between 2008 and 2010, AEP received a tax rebate of $545 million and made $5.899 billion in U.S. profits, meaning it paid a tax rate of minus nine percent,” said Public Campaign.
SWEPCO has said the high voltage power line is needed to support growth in Carroll and Benton Counties. Opponents have challenged that the line is far larger than what is needed in the area and speculate SWEPCO really wants the line to sell electricity out of state from its new Turk coal-fired power plant in southern Arkansas.
Mays successfully represented Sierra Club and Audubon in challenging the Turk plant. Mays argued that the plant wasn’t needed because other existing power generation, including natural gas, was available to meet needs of customers and that SWEPCO had not adequately considered alternatives.
SWEPCO continued building the Turk plant, but in a 2011 settlement with Sierra Club and Audubon, SWEPCO agreed to shut down a dirty coal plant upwind of Arkansas in northeastern Texas, and provide 400 megawatts of new clean energy for the region. The settlement also put aside $10 million for land conservation and energy-efficiency advocacy, and limits development of additional plants and transmission lines. The settlement ended a four-year high-profile public battle.
Sierra Club spokesman Glen Hooks said protecting Arkansans from coal pollution is a top priority.
In a press release, Sierra Club and Audubon recognized “the outstanding work and support of outside counsel, without whom this victory would not have been possible. Many thanks to Richard Mays [Mays & White, Heber Springs, Ark.], Ilan Levin [Environmental Integrity Project] and David Frederick of Austin, Texas.”
Save the Ozarks representative Pat Costner said Mays will file a petition to extend the deadline for intervention in the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) case for 90 days. The original deadline is May 2. Mays also filed a motion for Save the Ozarks to intervene in proceedings before the APSC. Save the Ozarks is taking a position that the entire transmission line is not needed.
At a Save the Ozarks public meeting April 18, Costner agreed with earlier speakers who said the Environmental Impact Study for the proposed project is shoddy. Costner said she had looked at similar documents in other states and it was like the difference between reading a comic book and an encyclopedia. She also encouraged people to join Save the Ozarks even if they don’t live near the proposed power line.
“This thing will affect many of you who may not live anywhere near it because it will affect the economy of the area,” Costner said. “There is power in joining together. That is the message I would like to leave with you tonight. We invite you to join us because we have an excellent attorney. We want to stop this. Here in Arkansas, these things have traditionally not been questioned. It is time to question. It is time to challenge. It is time to say ‘enough’. I’ve been involved in a lot of similar processes. We have a very strong case for everything we are asking for and our attorneys are optimistic.”
There are six alternative routes under consideration for the proposed power line. Some neighborhood groups and at least one business have indicated they are hiring attorneys to intervene, but may focus on opposition to the route that goes through their property as opposed to attacking need for the line at all. Those groups have not yet made announcements regarding hiring of attorneys.
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