NEWS STORY: No. 1 - SWEPCO plans, resulting public outcry top story of the year

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The No. 1 news story of 2013 has not only filled many pages in local and state newspapers since it first became public knowledge in early April; it also has united Carroll County residents in an overwhelming show of solidarity -- in opposition to the project -- unlike anything this area has ever seen.

Pat Costner, far left, looks up some information she is prepared to testify on as Save The Ozarks lead attorney Mick Harrison, second from left, and SWEPCO lead attorney David Matthews discuss one of the finer points of the regulations overseeing Arkansas Public Service Commission hearings, during the SWEPCO hearing in Little Rock on Friday.

On April 3, Southwestern Electric Power Co. filed paperwork with the Arkansas Public Service Commission seeking the state's permission to build a 48-mile-long, 345,000 Volt transmission line from its new Shipe Road station west of Centerton in Benton County to a proposed new station on the Kings River near Berryville.

The preferred Route 33, one of six possible routes originally proposed by SWEPCO, will take the line through the northern portion of Benton and Carroll counties, going through Garfield and Gateway in Benton County, continuing east of U.S. Highway 62, crossing the White River south of the Town of Beaver, passing 3,000 feet north of Lake Leatherwood in Eureka Springs, crossing Highways 187 and 23 North just below Holiday Island, continuing through wooded areas until it runs near Silver Wings Field in Eureka Springs, crossing County Road 279 in rural Berryville, continuing parallel to the Kings River, crossing it and then making a right angle south to the new station site on County Road 143, approximately one-half mile north of Hwy. 62.

The right-of-way for the transmission line, or the area to be clear-cut and then kept clear using herbicides, will be 150 feet wide; each tower will be between 130 and 160 feet tall.

Project cost is estimated between $90 million and $117 million, depending on which route is approved. If SWEPCO's preferred route is approved, the project will cost $116,718,121, including $96,274,138 for the transmission line and right-of-way easements, and $20,443,983 to construct the Kings River station.

The project will be funded by loans and internal cash, SWEPCO has said. Costs may also be shared by other electric companies who make use of the lines, spokesman Peter Main said. He said SWEPCO residential customers may expect to see a rate increase of 51 cents per 1,000 kWh once the line is operational, which on average will equal no more than a few dollars per month.

SWEPCO hopes to begin line construction in March 2015 and begin using it by June 2016.

But first, the project must receive the approval of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, which in July held four days of public hearings in Eureka Springs and Rogers to give area residents opportunity to voice their opposition directly to APSC officials and its administrative law judge Connie Griffin. Griffin, who has overseen all proceedings in the case, is due to issue a recommended decision in the case by mid-January; then, the panel of three APSC Commissioners will ultimately decide whether the project may move ahead and, if so, which route the line should follow.

SWEPCO's plans -- once they became public knowledge -- inspired a swift and colossal response from concerned Carroll County residents, particularly those from the western half the county, where the line would be located. But as more details have emerged about the power-line proposal -- and particularly what could come next, after this project is completed -- residents from all over the county and beyond have joined the fight against the mega-transmission line.

Within a week of SWEPCO's application filing with the APSC, a grassroots group of residents who oppose the utility's plans formed, called Save The Ozarks. STO immediately retained legal counsel and soon after was granted "intervenor" status in the case, meaning it was recognized by the APSC as an official party in the proceedings and allowed to testify at the Commission's evidentiary hearings held in Little Rock in August.

STO and another local group of opponents, Friends of the White River, have been instrumental in raising area residents' awareness about SWEPCO's plans and why they're bad for Carroll County. In addition to noting the inevitable aesthetic destruction of the county's mountainous and forested landscapes, as well as the unknown effects of electromagnetic fields that surround high-voltage power lines, opponents have argued that the region's fragile karst terrain -- a type of landscape that has sinkholes, sinking streams, caves, and springs and that is extremely porous -- is not stable enough to support 150-foot-tall towers (it's never been tried on karst terrain, SWEPCO has acknowledged, so no one knows for certain).

Opponents also argue that the Ozark Mountains' karst landscape is the worst possible terrain for using herbicides on a regular basis. That's because the herbicides will, without a doubt, filter downward through the thin, porous soils and the many disjointed layers of limestone, winding up in the region's groundwater -- and contaminating thousands of residents' private wells in the process.

Though SWEPCO has downplayed this possibility -- which is almost impossible to predict with any statistical accuracy -- the U.S. Geological Survey states that "karst features (sinkholes, springs, caves, solution channels, losing streams, etc.) at the surface can lead to rapid transport of surface-derived contaminants with little to no attenuation" and warns against using surface chemicals that are not meant for human consumption, particularly in populated areas and areas where groundwater is heavily relied upon for drinking water. Such is the case in western Carroll County; more than 5,000 households within a few miles' radius of Eureka Springs rely on well water, officials have said.

As details of the project emerged throughout the summer, and as STO and other vocal opposition leaders drew attention to the potential dangers of the project to local residents, the environment and the county's tourism industry, the public outcry of opposition swelled to a deafening roar -- so much so that the APSC in July opted to hold public hearings for resident feedback here instead of in Little Rock, which is where such proceedings are normally held.

Within just a couple of months after SWEPCO's application, 5,000 public comments had been filed on the APSC's website -- nearly all of which opposed the project in its entirety.

Following is a timeline of developments in the case:

APRIL 3, 2013 -- SWEPCO files its application for the project with the APSC.

APRIL 4 -- Certified letters notifying potentially affected landowners are sent by SWEPCO. The letters give landowners and other affected parties 30 days to raise objections before the APSC; that time period is extended weeks later when it becomes apparent that SWEPCO failed to include dozens of landowners whose property would be traversed by one or more of the proposed six routes.

APRIL 11 -- Newly formed opposition group Save The Ozarks holds its first meeting for local residents to learn more about the project. The meeting is held in Eureka Springs, which lies on at least one of the proposed routes.

APRIL 18 -- STO holds its second public informational meeting; at least 100 residents attend, and public opposition is solidified. The panel of speakers includes STO co-founder and former Greenpeace scientist Pat Costner, whose land could be traversed by the power line. She and other speakers question the local need for the line, which SWEPCO says is required to serve the county's growing population. That reasoning is later debunked by a closer look at census figures more recent than those cited by SWEPCO. In addition, the opponents decry the project's Environmental Impact Study, which makes no mention of the area's karst terrain or the dangers of using herbicides on it -- nor does the EIS take into account any potential negative effects on tourism, the staple industry of western Carroll County.

Days after the April 18 meeting, STO and its attorney request and receive an extension of the deadline for public comments and the deadline for STO to intervene in the case as an approved interested party.

APRIL 26 -- The Lovely County Citizen reveals that both Eureka Springs Mayor Morris Pate and County Judge Sam Barr had been notified of the forthcoming project last fall, but neither told anyone nor alerted local residents of the coming encroachment on their land and, ultimately, their tourism-based economy and their safety. By this time, several public officials and major businesses have voiced their concerns about the project, including the Beaver mayor and City Council, Garfield's mayor, Eureka Springs Parks & Rec Department, the Great Passion Play and even the Arkansas Department of Health, which warned against chemical runoff from the power lines and their construction making its way into the area's source of drinking water, Beaver Lake.

APRIL 30 -- The Eureka Springs City Council voted unanimously to approve Resolution No. 618, opposing the transmission line. The resolution states that tourism tax revenue generates around $130 million per year and the council opposes any of the proposed transmission lines that threaten the city and its environs that attract tourism dollars.

MAY 17 -- The Quorum Court votes to officially oppose the project. The resolution that JP Lamont Richie authored cites the potential impact of the project on such landmarks as the Pea Ridge National Military Park, Thorncrown Chapel, the Inspiration Point observation area, the historic Beaver Bridge, the City of Eureka Springs, and the Silver Wings Air Field -- all of which are in close proximity to one or more of the proposed routes.

MAY 20 -- The Holiday Island Board of Commissioners weights in, voting unanimously to oppose the project. One of SWEPCO's six proposed routes comes near Holiday Island, but not through it. It crosses near the intersection of Arkansas Highway 23 and 187. One speaker at the meeting questioned why SWEPCO had bought land for the Kings River substation before the project was approved by the Public Service Commission.

JUNE 7 -- The APSC announces dates for public comment hearings to be held in Eureka Springs and Rogers. By this time, more than 4,700 public comments had been filed on the APSC's website voicing residents' concerns and opposition, and 45 parties had been granted intervenor status.

JULY 15-16 -- More than 500 local residents and businesspeople show up at APSC's public comment hearings in Eureka Springs, and all but a single speaker oppose the project. Judging from the widespread camaraderie at the Inn of the Ozarks Convention Center those two days, it was clear that the residents who attended had left all their often-colorful differences of opinions -- something Carroll County and especially Eureka Springs is somewhat well-known for -- at the door.

It also became clear as testimony continued that Carroll Countians will not be "divided and conquered" by the proposal that includes not just a few but six different proposed routes. State Sen. Bryan King tells the Citizen that often, when a large corporation is trying to push through approval on a project that is likely to be opposed, that corporation will present several different options for its project in hopes of distracting residents from the big, area-wide issue -- whether to approve the transmission line at all -- as they become more focused on their own back yards -- and on which specific route is worst and/or would hurt them the most. But with surprising consistency, Carroll Countians who spoke at the public hearings July 15-16 were overwhelmingly opposed to the project in its entirety, and they said so, over and over and over.

July 19 -- SWEPCO withdraws three of the proposed routes -- the three closest to Eureka Springs -- from consideration in its application with the APSC. Though a spokesman said it had placed three of the six that were closest to town at the bottom of their list of routes in their application for approval, the filing itself says that SWEPCO "recommends Routes 62, 86 and 91 be removed from consideration" -- unless the APSC denies the remaining three routes, in which case the three withdrawn will be again considered, the filing says.

AUG. 1 -- An exclusive report in the Citizen reveals that SWEPCO's plans will likely, if approved, lead to two new additional mega-lines beginning at the proposed Kings River substation and running eastward across the most populated area of Carroll County -- and slicing all the way across the northern third of Arkansas. In planning documents used by Southwest Power Pool, the regional reliability organization that oversees utility interconnectivity in much of the South and which has instructed SWEPCO to build the currently proposed line in Western Carroll County, maps for future planning obtained by CCN and the Lovely County Citizen show not one but two new lines.

One of the new mega-lines not yet mentioned by any utility entity is proposed to be 345kV, the other one 500kV, which is the largest being used today, and both will begin at the proposed new substation on the Kings River and go eastward.

One line proposed by SPP runs for 130 miles from the new Kings River substation and heads southeast through Berryville, Green Forest, Harrison and Mountain View on its way to an existing station in Newark, Ark. A second project studied by SPP and proposed in a 2009 presentation begins at the Kings River substation and heads east-northeast for 110 miles, cutting north of Berryville, through Omaha, over Bull Shoals Lake and Lake Norfork north of Mountain Home before hitting the Missouri state line at Cox Creek and eventually joining a line already in place at Gobbler Knob, Mo.

In a 2011 planning document, SPP confirmed these plans, dubbed the "Ozark Plan," and estimated the total cost at $915 million.

AUG. 26-30 -- The APSC holds its hearing, sort of like a trial, on the SWEPCO project, wherein approved intervening parties are allowed to testify and present their evidence either opposing or supporting the project. The hearing was originally scheduled for two days but ends up lasting all week.

During the final two days of the hearing, the expert witnesses for opponent group Save The Ozarks are barely allowed to speak -- in some cases not at all -- as their testimony was admitted in written form only. Administrative Law Judge Griffin, who was overseeing the hearing, calls an indefinite recess in the proceedings just before 5 p.m. on Friday, noting that because of the magnitude and depth of the case, she may need to call the attorneys and even some witnesses back for additional questions in the near future. Griffin explains that she needs "more time and information" on both sides' arguments, and the following week, she issuea an order this week requesting legal briefs from all the parties' attorneys, highlighting the primary points of their arguments.

Just before the start of the hearing, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor -- who previously remained mum and was presumed to be straddling the fence in his opinion of the project -- comes out in opposition to the project.

SEPT. 15 -- An STO fundraiser and auction raises more than $35,000 to help with the group's legal fees in the fight against SWEPCO, as the groundswell of public opposition continues.

OCT. 1 -- SWEPCO asks the APSC for the chance to re-submit documents vital to its application, long after the deadline for such documents. With this motion, SWEPCO requests a post hoc amendment of the application they submitted for APSC approval -- a "do-over" of the statement of the public need and reasons for their proposed project.

"In effect, this is SWEPCO's admission that STO's expert witness, Dr. Hyde Merrill, was correct in his assessment: The public need identified in SWEPCO's application does not exist and, even if such a need did exist, the proposed project would not be required to meet it," STO said. "SWEPCO is asking APSC to replace their now disproven statement of need with their witnesses' testimonies, which include a new needs study that allegedly establishes previously unidentified public needs that require the construction the transmission line."

NOV. 18 -- Judge Griffin declares testimony -- both oral and written -- in the case closed.

Under state law, Griffin now has 60 days to render a decision as to whether the SWEPCO mega-line is needed, whether the utility may proceed, and, if so, which route it should take. Griffin's recommended decision will be taken under advisement by the three-person Commission, which ultimately has the last word and must announce its final decision with a month of Griffin's.

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