Thursday, August 29, 2013
When utility companies like American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) need legislation passed or approval for rate increases or other requests before the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC), it is rare to find a state politician in opposition. These wealthy utilities usually are generous with campaign contributions. For example, AEP/SWEPCO spent $2.4 million in 2012 on lobbying and campaign contributions.
But with overwhelming public opposition being seen to AEP/SWEPCO’s proposed Shipe Road to Kings River high voltage power line, area politicians have been writing the APSC expressing serious concerns about the project. Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (Rogers), Sen. Bryan King (Green Forest), Rep. Bob Ballinger (Hindsville), and Rep. Sue Scott (Bella Vista), have expressed concerns about the project to the APSC.
King said it is unfair that AEP/SWEPCO has had several years to plan the project while citizens didn’t hear about their property potentially being taken for the 345 kilovolt (kV) power line until early April.
“I’m going to be sending another letter to the APSC where I will talk about how I continue to be opposed to this and will be more detailed about how this process has been unfair to our area,” King said. “People here have not had a level playing field and time to study this matter. I feel like this process has been stacked against the people.”
King said he is a farmer, and if the power line went through his pasture he wouldn’t like it and it would have an impact. But the impact would be much greater putting it through scenic areas near Beaver Lake, the White River and Kings River – areas heavily dependent on tourism.
“That has more of a broad sweeping impact than it does on pastureland,” King said. “A lot of people moved to these areas for the scenery.”
King said he supported property rights legislation in the most recent legislative session that would give people more rights and just compensation if their property were taken for eminent domain. He said the process should be set up so both sides are on equal footing and people get a fair shake.
King co-signed a letter to the APSC with Bledsoe, Chair of the Public Health, Welfare & Labor Committee of the Arkansas Senate, stating they have received feedback on this issue from numerous entities and are deeply concerned about the outcomes should this application be approved.
“Areas of concern include the impact on local landowners and our state’s tourism industry, in addition to the overall economic impact,” states the letter dated July 29. “We respectfully ask the Public Service Commission to carefully study this issue for the period of at least a year before reaching a decision. The implications of this are far-reaching, and we believe a one-year period will allow for full consideration.”
APSC turned down the request to delay the proceeding, stating that timelines for applications are set by state code, and a one-year extension would not be allowed.
King said next year he will renew efforts to get changes to eminent domain laws that protect private property rights.
Bledsoe attended the hearing on the power line in Rogers, spending most of the day listening to constituents voice concerns about environment problems, devaluation of property, and health concerns from having high voltage lines near them.
“I felt some of these issues might need to be researched in greater detail,” Bledsoe said. “I have concern for people who are going to be affected by these lines. I do not oppose the project entirely. I just want it studied more. I believe the north line, route 109, might in my opinion have been a better fit for the district. The 345 kV transmission line is a big deal, and I felt it would help if the people had more of a chance to verbalize their concern and if the APSC had more time to do research. “
Bledsoe said the downtown area of Garfield and the elementary school would be heavily impacted. “It is a concerning problem,” Bledsoe said.
Ballinger also sent a letter to the APSC expressing concerns about the project. “Given the scope of the project and the potential for negatively impacting area residents and businesses, I believe we need to thoroughly study this proposed project and explore the viability of all available alternatives before proceeding with approval,” he wrote.
The legislator expressing greatest opposition to the project has been Rep. Sue Scott, who represents parts of Bella Vista and Pea Ridge. Scott, speaking at the APSC hearing in Eureka Springs, spoke of how devastated she was when AEP/SWEPCO came in and cut down hundreds of trees on her property. She also spoke about the company coming in later to spray herbicides, with the overspray killing most of the vegetation in her garden. She said the area almost looked like there had been a forest fire.
“We already have this power line,” Scott said. “Please don’t give my constituents in District 95 another one. I know what happens.”
Mikel C. Lolley, vice president of stewardship for the Treadwell Institute in Fayetteville, said opposition from legislators is significant. Because of campaign contributions and lobbying, legislators rarely express concern regarding a significant request from the utility cartel.
“A one-year moratorium would have helped a lot,” Lolley said. “It would have given the opposition time to catch-up. Recall that the utility cartel and the APSC conversations predate our public notice by years. Therefore, they had a huge head start and a huge home court advantage.”
Lolley said opponents of the power line have the best chance of influencing the decision if they can get elected public officials to oppose the project.
“In the rarified air of the APSC, if 500 people show up to oppose it, it doesn’t put pressure on APSC,” he said. “It takes pressure from the elected public officials. Then you are speaking the APSC language. Without opposition from politicians, APSC knows it has the power to approve a project and know they will be supported politically.”
The AEP/SWEPCO line is one of several large transmission projects proposed that Lolley said are to transmit power through Arkansas, not to Arkansas. The APSC denied an application for a Clean Line Energy transmission line that would run from Oklahoma through Arkansas up to Tennessee. Clean Line Energy is now trying to get a permit through the Department of Energy (DOE) for the power line, and has the support of U.S. Senator Mike Pryor. Entergy has plans for a 500 kV transmission line stretching 150 miles between Osage Creek Station located near the proposed Kings River Station near Berryville at the end of the AEP-SWEPCO line to the eastern Arkansas town of Newark. The cost estimate for the line is $520 – $570 million.
“We want to leverage the opposition for the AEP/SWEPCO line to also oppose the Entergy line that is coming and the Clean Line Energy line that is coming,” Lolley said. “Ultimately, we don’t need the AEP/SWEPCO line that is a bridge to nowhere when we have distributed generation that could be deployed tomorrow if we decided to do that. We don’t need more transmission lines now or in the future. What this really is, is a last ditch money grabbing effort of a utility sector on the defensive because their business model is heading to bankruptcy for the first time in a century.”
Rep. John K. Hutchison (Harrisburg) is opposed to the Clean Line Energy transmission line and suspicious of the other projects.
“There is something going on in Arkansas that I don’t like,” Hutchison said. “There is too much happening. Something big is going on. It is just not real cool.”
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