Thursday, July 18, 2013
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Citizen group Save The Ozarks advised people attending the public hearing this week on SWEPCO’s high voltage transmission line to, “Speak up for what you love and don’t want to lose. Silence means consent.” But supporters likely couldn’t have guessed just how much that advice would be taken to heart as hundreds of people poured into the Inn of the Ozarks Convention Center Monday and Tuesday for nearly 20 hours of public comments made in front of Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin.
Of the 327 people who signed up to speak, 229 gave comments. Comments were all in strong opposition to the proposal, except for one man Monday afternoon who said if the project was needed to give other people electricity, it should be supported.
“This sucks for us, but people somewhere else need this power,” said Will Alburtis, who apologized to his neighbors for his position.
His comment was followed by one from Jennifer Lyn Pile, who like speaker after speaker said she opposed all six route alternatives proposed by SWEPCO for the high voltage transmission line that would create a 150-ft.-wide clear-cut path from Shipe Road in Benton County to the Kings River in Carroll County. Pile read off a long list of the health risks of the high voltage lines including children living near power lines being five times more likely to develop cancer.
“This is not even mentioning the plummeting of our property values,” Pile said. “Many will pay.”
Griffin had earlier issued a ruling banning recording devices and cameras from being used by the public at the hearing, but reconsidered, asking that those devices be used in a way not disruptive to the proceedings. The judge also set a three-minute time limit on comments, but allowed speakers time to finish up. Applause was not allowed, which initially was difficult to enforce Monday as people responded enthusiastically to comments. Finally, after the third applause, the judge said the hearing would be stopped if applause continued, and the audience largely cooperated.
The hearing Monday ran from 9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 4 p.m. and again from 6 to 9 p.m. with the crowd – many wearing orange NO SWEPCO t-shirts – listening to the public comments ranging from 100 to close to 250. Tuesday there were even longer hours as the judge tried to accommodate all wanting to speak. The afternoon session was extended to 5 p.m. and comments went to 9:15 Tuesday evening, but still, not everyone got to speak.
Speakers took offense to the project on the grounds that it would devastate the environment, that it would greatly harm the tourism-based economy, and need for the project had not been demonstrated.
Charlotte Downey, who ran the Beaver Dam Store for 22 years catering to kayakers and fishermen on the White River and Beaver Lake, said many small businesses in the area depend on the quality of local waters to make a living. Downey, who has a degree in biology, took SWEPCO to task for significant errors and omissions in the Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for the project including a statement that the White River flows south.
Downey said the main industry here is tourism, not farming and mining as printed in the EIS. She said the EIS excluded information about the federally listed endangered chinquapin trees, and excluded from consideration a great variety of wildlife. She also said the EIS was deficient in not describing impacts of the project on humans.
“We don’t want this,” Downey said. “We can’t stand this. We can’t make a living here if this goes through our community.” She implored Griffin to use strong words when reporting back to the ASPC, such as “Hell, no!”
Downey said the negative emotional and psychological impact on the community is horrendous and significant enough that it should have been considered in the EIS.
Many spoke of the fear and anxiety the project has evoked. Loretta Crenshaw, director of the Eureka Springs Carnegie Library, said a large number of library patrons had come in to look at the SWEPCO documents on file at the library.
“If we sound angry and defensive, it is because we are afraid,” she said. “We are afraid for our safety and for our livelihoods.”
Dennis Martin, whose property is on two of the proposed routes, has had previous problems with pesticide spraying on his electric rights-of-way. As a cancer survivor, his doctor told him it was important to avoid stress.
“But since I got the notification letter in April, my stress is higher than it has been in any of the 40 years I’ve been here,” Martin said.
Like many others, Sam Ward spoke about being drawn to locate in the area because of natural beauty and peaceful nature. Ward said a route proposed for the power line would cut through the middle of their 25-acre family farm currently being used to raise grass fed beef. He said he would no longer be able to be certified organic if his cows were grazed on herbicide-contaminated pasture.
Ward would get a double whammy business impact because he also operates a fishing guide operation on the river. He said customers have told him even if they don’t catch fish, they enjoy the beautiful environment. “But who wants to sit on the river looking at 150 foot tall power poles and listen to loud noise?” Ward said.
There are concerns about herbicides used to maintain the right-of-way combined with siltation of the river from construction and keeping the area denuded of vegetation that can control erosion. “Will there still be fish or customers if the land is clear-cut?” Ward asked.
Mary Jane Fritsch, who is 99 years old and has lived in the area since 1918, expressed concern about the impacts to the environment including the 161 acres she has donated to the Ozark Regional Land Trust. A portion of the power line route would go through the land that Fritsch has set aside for permanent preservation.
Fritsch testified about her concerns about the potential of the project to destroy caves and springs that lead to Table Rock Lake.
“We don’t need this extra power,” Fritsch said. “This area is full of caves that have blind cave fish who are rare and endangered. It is a disaster all the way around. It will ruin the economy, and be bad for our health. That’s all I can say about it.”
Duane Woltjen, a representative of the Ozark Regional Land Trust, which has 2,000 acres under land conservation agreements, said Fritsch had a vision to protect this very steep slope landscape in its natural state. He said construction of a power line on such steep slopes would not only disrupt scenic values, but also result in sedimentation decreasing water quality in local springs and lakes. Woltjen urged the APSC to require SWEPCO to avoid or mitigate all permanently preserved land.
Also addressed were allegations that the power line would be a superhighway for exporting cheap, dirty coal-fired electricity power out of state. Michael Shah, who lives near one of the southern routes proposed for the power line, said Arkansas is only using about half the amount of electricity it produces. The rest is being exported to more densely populated areas in Louisiana and Texas. Shah said the sparse population and lack of growth mean the power line is not needed to serve people here in Arkansas. He said those heavily populated areas need the power, and “we need the serenity.”
“There is no doubt the primary intent is not to benefit Carroll County,” said Eureka Springs resident Shawn Franklin. “SWEPCO will try to spin facts, but a 345 kilovolt line exceeds total electrical needs of our county at least by a factor of four. Since Berryville and all of Carroll County couldn’t possibly use all the power, clearly they plan to send it somewhere else.”
Franklin objected to tens of thousands of trees being removed for the power line, and said that would interfere with the county’s primary “crop” – tourism. “People come to see our beautiful vistas,” he said. “They don’t come hundreds of miles to see gigantic power poles. I urge you to completely reject this project that would wreck the economy of our community.”
Crystal Ursin said no one locally would benefit. “If the is line approved, no more tourists are coming,” she said.
She said the project would pollute the river and kill fish, and urged the APSC to deny the transmission lines and instead move towards distributed wind and solar energy systems for the future. Ursin also spoke of the overwhelming number of public comments opposing the project, which is believed to be a record number for the APSC. “With 4,800 comments objecting, how could this project ever be approved?” she asked.
Dwight Kertzman, a retired biologist and co-owner of Castle Antiques at Inspiration Point, said it is a major folly to do an EIS without ever visiting an area. He said their store and home are more than 600 feet above the White River, and construction on those very steep terrains would cause a great deal of destruction. Siltation and herbicide runoff into the White River would be devastating, he said. He added that the EIS is also flawed in that it doesn’t include the impact on scenic overlooks such as the popular Inspiration Point view on US 62.
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