Thursday, July 11, 2013
After Save The Ozarks (STO) Director Pat Costner requested information on how the public hearing July 15 would be conducted regarding an application by SWEPCO to build a high-voltage transmission line in Northwest Arkansas, the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) administrative law judge overseeing the hearing responded to requests from a SWEPCO attorney by issuing restrictions that ban all recordings of the proceedings, limit public comment to three minutes each and otherwise establish rules Costner said are designed to stifle public participation.
“Late Wednesday afternoon, fewer than five days before the APSC’s first public hearing on SWEPCO’s proposal to construct a 345 kV power line from western Benton County to the Kings River in eastern Carroll County is to take place in Eureka Springs, APSC Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin issued Order No. 13, rules of procedure and conduct for the public comment hearings to be held in Eureka Springs and Rogers,” Costner said. “Eureka Springs is at the epicenter of public opposition to the power line that has spread across northwest Arkansas. Order No. 13 places a three-minute limit on the people who are coming to the hearing to comment on the proposal and its impacts on their properties and lives. This is little more than enough time for most speakers to introduce themselves, much less describe their property and address their concerns.”
Order No. 13 prohibits the use of cell phones and electronic devices. This means that no one, private individuals or the news media, will be allowed to photograph, videotape or otherwise record any part of the hearing.
Order No. 13 repeats the directions of a previous order stating that SWEPCO representatives must be there to meet with those who wish to make statements and to assist them in locating their property on SWEPCO maps.
“How distracting, chilling and even intimidating will this be for the people who are coming to speak in opposition to SWEPCO’s plan?” Costner asks. “Order No. 13 also directs SWEPCO to provide appropriate security for the public hearings along with a bailiff. Such measures seem certain to create a hostile atmosphere that will further chill and discourage public participation in these hearings.”
The order also said no applause will be allowed, and speakers will not be able to give their three minutes to another speaker. E-mails between the SWEPCO attorney and administrative law judge indicate that STO officers Costner and Doug Stowe will not be allowed to speak at the public hearing, nor any other interveners who pre-filed testimony.
Costner said the APSC seems bound and determined to chill, muffle and stifle public participation in the matter that has raised widespread concern and alarm from hundreds of property owners potentially impacted, and many others who are concerned about the potential negative impacts to the environment, the scenic beauty and the tourism economy of Northwest Arkansas from the 48-mile long route that would clear cut a path 150 feet wide.
If every single minute of Monday’s three three-hour sessions is devoted to commenters (and that is an impossibility), even with Order No. 13’s three-minute time limit, the maximum number of people who will be able to speak on Monday is 180.
“I would hope more people than that will come to speak,” Costner said. “If the hearing is continued on Tuesday, that brings the total possible speakers to 360. If the two days of hearings in Rogers are included, that means a total of only 720 people can possibly speak. Compare this to the more than 1,000 notifications sent by SWEPCO and more than 5,000 opposing comments sent to the ASPC.”
Costner was also disappointed in the APSC’s refusal to make any provisions for people with special needs.
“My 100-year-old neighbor, Mary Jane Fritsch, wants to speak at the meeting,” Costner said. “She is strongly opposed to SWEPCO’s proposal. I have asked APSC to accommodate her by allowing her to speak when she arrives rather than forcing her to stand in line to sign up and then wait until her name comes to the top of the list. They refused. Can you imagine that level of lack of regard and respect for a person who has lived for 100 years? Mary Jane has near-encyclopedic knowledge of these hills – she describes them as ‘honeycombed with caves.’”
Griffin will consider comments and testimonies before issuing a recommendation to the three-member APSC that they either approve or disapprove. The judge will rule first about whether the project is needed. If a need is determined, the judge could make recommendations on the preferred route for the power line. SWEPCO has proposed six alternatives.
The APSC will consider the judge’s recommendations, and issue the final ruling, which may or may not agree with her recommendations.
Costner said the least stressful, most effective way for people to present their testimony is to write it down and read it.
“The important thing is that you show up and speak. Be calm, be thorough and be factual,” Costner said. “Tell Judge Griffin about every important aspect of your life that will be affected if the APSC approves SWEPCO’s plan. If possible, support your comments with photographs, studies, reports, etc., quoting and/or referencing the testimonies of STO witnesses, letters and statements by federal and state agencies, civic organizations. Conclude by telling the judge, in one sentence, the recommendation you are asking her to make to the APSC with regard to SWEPCO’s plan.”
Issues that could be addressed at the hearing include the following.
- Livelihoods. How would the project affect livelihoods, business incomes, and income from real estate investments?
- Water resources. How would the proposal affect private water wells, springs, losing streams, ponds, rivers, and lakes?
- Public health concerns include electromagnetic fields, fire hazards and respiratory hazards from the smoke from fires used to burn trees and other vegetation.
- Karst features. Caves, bluffs and other large rock outcroppings, springs and sinkholes could all be impacted by major construction and maintenance activities.
- Trees and woodlands. How would the forest be impacted by the loss of habitat?
APSC employees will have the sign-in sheets available starting one hour before the start of each public comment hearing session. The APSC staff will also have a list of the landowners traversed by each route segment and maps of the various routes in case people need help with locating the route(s) and route segments speakers want to address.
Costner said it is important that people come to the hearing on Monday, July 15, because the hearing will be continued on Tuesday morning only if there are people still waiting to speak at 9 p.m. Monday. “We urge you to come to Monday’s hearing here in Eureka,” she said. “If you can’t, APSC will hold another hearing in Rogers on Wednesday, July 17, at the Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas, 3303 Pinnacle Hills Parkway, 9 a.m.-noon, 1-4 p.m., and 6-9 p.m.”
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