Thursday, August 29, 2013
Members of Save The Ozarks (STO) and other opponents of the American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwestern Electric Energy Company (SWEPCO) Shipe Road to Kings River 345 kilovolt (kV) power line are feeling cautiously optimistic about efforts being put forth in hearings in Little Rock this week before the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC).
“Mick Harrison, the attorney for STO, is relentless,” said Doug Stowe, an STO member from Eureka Springs attending the hearing. “The SWEPCO witnesses each have a particular defensive squeak in their voices. Mick spent four hours Tuesday cross examining 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. It could not have been fun to be him. Mick worked his way step-by-step through a mountain of documents. Thornhill admitted reaching conclusions before researching the data and said that is their common approach. Mick was trying to get SWEPCO to admit that they have not fully addressed the concerns of the APSC about whether or not their regulatory requirements have been met.”
The hearing began Monday with opening statements from AEP/SWEPCO and intervenors opposing the project. AEP/SWEPCO attorney, David Matthews, said he objected to project opponents referring to AEP/SWEPCO as “greedy, idiotic, incompetent, unethical, immoral, rapists, and even monkeys,” referring to comments made during earlier public hearings.
Matthews said AEP/SWEPCO and consultants were offended, but able to endure insults because they knew there would come a time when the company would have an opportunity to present its case without fear of being shouted down or assaulted. Several opponents said they were offended when Matthews suggested that physical threats had been made.
Matthews said the hearing would reveal the truth. STO and other intervenors said they believe that is true, as well, but not the “truth” the way Matthews sees it. STO and other opponents pressed hard that the project is not needed, the power line would have major negative impacts to property values and harm the tourism economy because scenery would be blighted. In addition, many property owners were not notified, as required by law.
Opponents also contend the EIS failed to take into account critical factors such as fragile karst topography of the area with many springs, sinkholes and caves that could be damaged by building the 130 –150-ft. tall monopoles requiring footings 40-50 ft. deep and ten ft. wide. The project would require an average of six large poles per mile, with a right-of-way clearance 150 ft. wide where trees would be cut down and herbicides sprayed repeatedly to prevent re-growth.
Thornhill agreed that karst topography was not taken into account when preparing the EIS, and that parts of the EIS were boilerplate language taken from an EIS for another project.
Harrison said the impression he was getting from testimony is that environmental impacts were an afterthought in this process.
“We’ve all known that the EIS was insufficient,” Stowe said. “Now it has been laid bare.”
Stowe complimented STO experts and the work done by other intervenors.
“Rick Smardon, our visuals expert, is an incredible resource,” Stowe said. “Dr. Hyde Merrill, our needs expert, is astounding. Jeff Danos has been truly impressive with his detailed questions. Jeff’s objective was to reveal Thornhill’s failure to address visual displeasure and economic impact, two matters required by Arkansas statute to be investigated in the application. I love being here with these incredible defenders of our community.”
One of the SWEPCO witnesses was Jennifer Jackson, an AEP employee who determined the increase in rates for Arkansas consumers of .51 per 1,000 kilowatt hours. She indicated in her testimony that the $2,049,828 that would be billed to Arkansas ratepayers amounted to 17 percent of the total annual cost of the power line.
“In other words, 83 percent of the power would be billed to out of state ratepayers,” Stowe said.
The connection with Entergy, which has plans for a 500 kV transmission line in the area that would run east from the Kings River Substation, was also discussed Tuesday, including testimony by Melinda Montgomery, the planning and transmission manager for Entergy Arkansas.
“Under cross examination by Mick Harrison, STO’s lawyer, it was determined that Entergy was directed by AEP/SWEPCO/ Southern Power Pool (SPP) to hook up their substation at Osage Creek to the proposed, and not yet approved Kings River Substation, if and when it has been constructed,” said Michael Shah, a member of STO. “Montgomery repeated that this proposed hook-up would complete a circuit of power that would travel from Shipe Road outside of Centerton, just west of Fayetteville. This routing and hook-up is not to solve a problem of immediate or foreseeable need, but just to be available as backup and to provide AEP/SWEPCO/SPP power to possibly sell in other markets. This point was clarified and amplified by a further cross examination by Danos and Lori Bennett.” Bennett is an intervenor and attorney.
Testimony indicated the project was originated by AEP/SWEPCO/SPP in late 2006 and was given to Montgomery for her planning assignment this April 2013. Montgomery testified she was directed to notify SWEPCO/AEP/SPP that Entergy would support the proposed Kings River Substation as long as their share of the hook-up fell within cost guidelines of $1.6 million to no more than $6 million.
Dr. Richard Coffman, a civil engineer, drilling engineer and geo-environmental engineer and assistant college professor, testified that many drilling variables would be involved in the Ozark karst terrain, making it difficult to estimate drilling and construction costs.
“The variables of caves, sink holes, endangered species and hidden water sources would all add to these difficulties,” Shah said.
Harrison then cross-examined Joseph Paul Hassink, director of west transmission planning for AEP Service Corporation. Hassink said if SWEPCO doesn’t build the transmission line, SPP would find somebody else to do it. SPP is a regional transmission planning organization that covers nine states, and AEP/SWEPCO is a member of SPP.
Harrison’s contention is that SWEPCO decided to build the power line in 2008 before looking at environmental issues. He said that is a biased process designed to support a decision already made. “You really should gather your data, then draw your conclusions,” Harrison said.
Another issue is that the preferred route 33 would have adverse impacts on the Pea Ridge National Military Park. Michael T. Reynolds, regional director of the U.S Department of Interior in Omaha, Neb., said the line would be a scenic blight to the park, and would run between critical battlefield lands outside the park that were identified in a 2006 study for possible inclusion in the park. The Pea Ridge Park was not officially notified by AEP-SWEPCO about the proposed power line.
As the hearing entered its fourth day, there was apparent fatigue by many participants, including Eureka Springs residents who have been staying in Little Rock. AEP-SWEPCO attorney Matthews said they had been there for a long time already, and “it could go forever.” The hearing was expected to last a week, but could go longer.
“If we do not finish by Friday, the judge indicated it will continue, but that next week is not available,” said John P. Bethel, executive director of the APSC. As of mid-morning Thursday, exchanges between Matthews and Harrison were becoming increasingly heated, according to Stowe.
In order for the project to proceed, first the APSC must approve a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need. The second stage would be to select a route.
Originally six routes were under consideration ranging in length from 46 to 59 miles. Three routes were dropped after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to provide an easement over part of Beaver Lake and along the White River, stating that other alternatives were available and that eminent domain could not be used to take federal property.
Three routes still being considered include the preferred route 33 that would run from a proposed new $20-million Kings River Substation north of Berryville to north of Eureka Springs through Gateway and Garfield, then between Bella Vista and Bentonville. Two other routes under consideration are route 108 that runs south from the Shipe Road Substation into Madison and Washington Counties, crossing Cave Springs, following a route in Carroll County south of Eureka Springs. Route 109 runs from the Kings River Substation to north of Eureka Springs along the Missouri border before entering the west side of Bella Vista.
Connie Griffin, the APSC administrative law judge overseeing the hearing, is required by law to reach a decision within 60 days of the end of the hearing. The three members of the Public Service Commission can agree, disagree or modify Judge Griffin’s ruling.
If the project is approved, opponents have the option of appealing the decision to the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
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