DAY ONE: SWEPCO arguments begin; Public Service Commission hearing 'ahead of schedule' in Little Rock
LITTLE ROCK -- After the first day of testimony, the tense and emotional Arkansas Public Service Commission hearing on Southwestern Electric Power Co.'s proposed mega-power line in Carroll and Benton counties was deemed "ahead of schedule" as it went into recess late Monday.
The hearing, predicted by APSC officials to last all week, moved more quickly than expected as opening arguments were heard by those parties who were present, followed by fewer-than-expected public comments and then the beginning of witness testimony and cross-examination.
Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin is overseeing the hearing; she also overheard the public hearings held in Eureka Springs and Rogers last month. She is required by law to issue a ruling within 60 days, and then the actual three-person Commission will decide whether to accept or reject her recommended ruling -- and they will ultimately alter the future of many landowners and their properties across a 48-mile swath through Benton and Western Carroll County.
SWEPCO has asked for permission to construct a 345,000 Volt power line from its Shipe Road station in Benton County to a proposed new substation on the Kings River near Berryville. The line would be 48 miles long, and the power poles would be about twice the height of the county's tallest current poles, at 160 feet apiece. Herbicides would be used to keep the extra-large right-of-way cleared all along the route -- something that has many area residents who rely on well water very worried.
Despite the opponents' fears, they were holding heads high throughout the first day of proceedings and said Monday evening that they felt good about the first day of the hearing.
Doug Stowe, a Eureka landowner who would be affected by one of SWEPCO's routes and a founder of opposition group Save The Ozarks, said he and others with the group such as Pat Costner -- on hand at the front of the room Monday to assist Save The Ozarks attorneys -- were happy to be taking part in the entire process.
"It is amazing how the intensity of the last three months has come down to this week in which our attorneys (and I include Jeff Danos in this) are grilling the witnesses we've met before only as case files," Stowe told the Lovely County Citizen. "Our legal representation is top-notch, and the witnesses seem to have never encountered any thing like his cross-examination before," referring to the fact that SWEPCO's witnesses seemed reluctant, at best, when being cross-examined.
"At the beginning of the hearing, in his introductory remarks, SWEPCO attorney David Matthews noted that this hearing was the time in which all the lies told about SWEPCO would see the light of day and the truth would be made clear. So far, that has not been the case," Stowe added. "He also insists that the sole duty of the Arkansas Public Service Commission is to choose which route the power line will follow" and not whether the power line should be constructed in the first place -- which is the Commission's first duty under the law.
"My own feelings for today are that our STO attorney set the stage for more to come in the following days. That makes it exciting to be here and to be a part of this," Stowe said.
The opening statements were tense and brimming with emotion from the start, when SWEPCO attorney David Matthews referenced some "nasty accusations" that have been levied by some opponents during the build-up to this week's proceedings.
"My clients have endured an incredible number of offensive, uninformed and event incendiary charges against SWEPCO and its employees," Matthews said, pointing toward Eureka residents in attendance and the attorneys for opposition group Save The Ozarks. "In these public comments, my clients have been characterized as greedy, idiotic, unethical, immoral, rapists and even monkeys ... and these things were difficult to hear without responding.
"SWEPCO and its employees were able to withstand these accusations and comments because they knew that one day they'd be afforded the opportunity to state their case without fear of being shouted down or assaulted. That day has come."
Matthews, in his opening statement, covered several topics, beginning with an explanation of how SWEPCO's proposal originated; the utility -- back in 2008 -- was ordered by a Regional Transmission Organization, called Southwest Power Pool, to construct the new line, he noted.
SPP is one of several U.S. RTOs authorized by the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 to oversee the nation's electrical grid -- and to instruct utilities on when and where new lines are needed.
It is unclear whether SPP -- because of its authority granted by the Energy Act -- or the APSC has the ultimate authority on whether the power line will be constructed, officials have said, because a conflict between the two entities has not yet occurred -- nor been argued in court -- in such a case as this.
Matthews, however, in his opening statement spoke as though there could be no possible disagreement between state and federal authorities on whether a new power line is needed and should be constructed. Such is not the case, several officials have told Carroll County Newspapers.
"The federal government and the state government have determined that regional transmission entities operate in the best interest of the public. ...," he said. "Evidence shows this line is needed and needed now. To find otherwise would put in jeopardy the supply of electricity in the region and beyond."
Here he referenced the wildfire in Yosemite and its threat to cut off the power supply in San Francisco as an example of why the Northwest Arkansas power line is needed, indicating that the line is meant to serve areas far outside Northwest Arkansas -- despite many claims that were repeated by the energy industry Monday that the line is needed to serve the "growing population" in the immediate area.
Steve Williams, attorney for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., also hinted at the utility's plans to sell and transport the added electricity output to areas, when in his opening statement he said the new route would "strengthen the transmission system in Northwest Arkansas and improve AECC's ability to move electricity across the seams" to other utilities around the country, he said.
On Monday, only four individuals gave public comments -- compared to the more than 350 who signed up to give comments at last month's Eureka and Rogers public hearings.
The first individual to offer comment Monday was a woman who lives just over the Missouri state line outside Pineville, Mo., and said she and many of her neighbors have yet to be notified -- months after the legal deadline -- about SWEPCO's proposal, which includes a route that would traverse her property.
Jamie Harvey presented her own comment as well as affidavits from more than a dozen of her neighbors, none of whom have been contacted by SWEPCO, they said.
Arkansas law requires that a utility give proper, speedy and early notice to landowners who would potentially be affected by any proposed new facilities, including power lines, so those landowners may participate in the decision-making process such as this week's hearing in Little Rock.
Harvey's comments showed that SWEPCO has not met the legal requirements to have its application to build the new power line and substation approved, opponents of the proposal said Monday -- and it was not the only time such criticism was leveled at the utility during the hearing's opening day.
Public comments were allowed after the parties' opening statements, heard at the opening of Monday's hearing. Only individuals who have not already commented at a previous public hearing were allowed to speak, and they were limited to three minutes apiece.
The claims that Carroll County needs the route because of the industry's projections that the population is growing substantially were met with blatant disbelief Monday, particularly during witness cross-examinations, as Eureka resident Jeff Danos and Save The Ozarks' lead attorney Mick Harrison grilled utility industry witnesses on how and why they are predicting growth in Carroll County when U.S. Census numbers from 2012 actually show a stagnant population level here.
One of the utility witnesses actually relied on a prime argument of SWEPCO opponents to "explain" why SWEPCO and others believe more future residents will need more electricity in the coming years.
Ricky Bittle, vice president of planning for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., said when asked why the energy industry is predicting population growth here, replied:
"Many people have said even in opening statements that they decided to move into (Carroll County) because they think it's a pretty area. I expect that will continue."
A vocal contingent of the 100 or so spectators and witnesses in the room audibly responded with a collective groaning chuckle.
Following the opening statements, a few witnesses for SWEPCO and the energy industry were called. Witness testimony and cross-examination was scheduled to continue throughout Tuesday and predicted to last another two or more days.
Early Tuesday, Save The Ozarks was expected to call its witnesses, followed by the following parties' witness testimony and cross-examination:
* Fritz Goodnow and Tom Oppenheim ("River Oaks Intervenors"),
* Mitchell & Spencer Properties LLC,
* Thomas and Sarah Allred ("Allred"),
* Coughlin Family, LLC, the Coughlin Family Revocable Living Trust, and the Coughlin Family Revocable Trust, by and through their authorized representative Cynthia Coughlin ("Coughlin")
* David and Bettianne Jackson, B. Cris and Eleanor Jones, Charles and Kathleene Chiasson, Hans Christian and Charlene Hoewt, Rick and Janet Clark, Paul Zander and Blackthorn Land and Trading Company, LLC, ("Jackson Petitioners"),
* Municipality of Gateway,
* Municipality of Garfield,
* City of Springdale, Arkansas,
* City of Cave Springs,
* Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust ("Wal-Mart"),
* B. Michael Bennett and Lori L. Bennett ("Bennetts"),
* Jeffrey W. and Christina M. Danos, husband and wife ("Danos Petitioners"), and
* The General Staff of the Arkansas Public Service Commission ("Staff").
An order including Judge Griffin's decision on SWEPCO's application to build the power line is required by law to be issued within 60 days of the end of the hearing.
However, the final decision rests with the actual three-person Public Service Commission, which may take any of four actions once Griffin's decision is released:
* The Commission may affirm her decision and adopt it as their own;
* The Commission may reject and overturn her decision in full;
* The Commission may modify her decision; or
* The Commission may take no action, and after 30 days of no action, then the judge's decision becomes the final decision of the Commission.
Editor's note: For a more detailed report on this week's hearing, watch for nightly updates at www.LovelyCitizen.com or www.Facebook.com/LovelyCountyCitizen, or check out this Thursday's edition of the Lovely County Citizen.