opinion by Maylon Rice
Editor’s note: Maylon Rice is a former newspaper reporter, columnist and editor at several newspapers over the past 40 years. He ran, unsuccessfully for the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. A native of Warren, Rice lives in Fayetteville.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
After all the controversy this past summer surrounding the proposed high voltage transmission line planned by Southwestern Electric Power Company through the Ozarks, there is a new twist to this confusing issue, now drawing criticism and even proposed legislation from our neighbors to the north in Missouri.
The ruling by Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin was not expected for at least a couple more months, but lo, and behold on Jan. 17 – late on a Friday afternoon – the judge and her staff filed her lengthy 118-page decision on which path the utility should take.
And what a decision it was by Judge Griffin.
The judge chose Route 109, a largely northerly route, which skirts along and often skips across the Arkansas-Missouri line. Route 109 was the path chosen by the judge as “least evasive.” That route would cost an estimated $102.8 million to construct.
SWEPCO, which is asking for new 345-kilovolt power line, however, does not have permission or any regulatory standing as a utility operating in Missouri.
And now, after the judge filed her order, the virtual legal clock for action by the Arkansas Public Service Commission is ticking and ticking loudly. The three member PSC, have 30 days – as of Jan. 17 – for the judge’s ruling to be considered.
The trio of commissioners, all appointed by the Governor, may: (a) accept the judge’s ruling, (b) modify that ruling, or (c) reject the ruling within this 30 day deadline.
If nothing is done in this short time window – the ruling becomes the final order of the commission.
Not so fast, say several elected officials from Missouri.
This last week, as reported in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Northwest Arkansas edition, two state Representatives in the Missouri House have filed a bill to prevent SWEPCO from building the high voltage power line, at least parts of it, on Missouri soil. The bill was filed by Missouri state House members, Reps. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob and Bill Lant, R-Pineville, according to the newspaper.
But back last October, prior to the House members filing, another local politician, Missouri state Senator David Sater, who represents Barry, Lawrence, McDonald, Stone and Taney counties in Missouri, all of which sit just north of the Arkansas-Missouri state line, opposed Route 109, the very route, chosen by the judge last week.
Sen. Sater wrote in a weekly op-ed column, published in the Cassville, Mo., newspaper, that should the proposed Route 109 be pursued, he would work with local officials and members of the Missouri Legislature to determine the best way to oppose it.
As Judge Griffin held public hearings last summer on the proposed routes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with federal lands domain eliminated three proposed routes that would cross Beaver Lake. Those areas were deleted from consideration. The public hearings continued last summer in the area and in Little Rock. At the conclusion of the hearings Judge Griffin said she would take the issue under advisement.
On Jan. 17, Judge Griffin recommended a 56-mile route that skirts just north of the Missouri state line for about 25 miles, which will require regulatory approval in Missouri. The route selected, was not the route preferred by SWEPCO and has the utility officials scratching their collective heads.
SWEPCO has yet to apply for approval from the Missouri Public Service Commission and must also apply to be a public utility in that state, officials have said. SWEPCO serves more than 200 communities in Louisiana, Texas and western Arkansas, but none in Missouri, according to the company's website.
Anyone wishing to contest Griffin's decision has 20 days from Jan. 17 to object. Any objection filed against the judge’s ruling would prompt a review by the three-member commission. Opponents then would have another 30 days to petition for a rehearing. If a rehearing was denied or didn't conclude in their favor, opponents could take their case to the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
SWEPCO applied April 3, 2013, to build the 345-kilovolt transmission line from Centerton, to Kings River near Berryville. To support the line, six towers would be needed every mile averaging 130-160 feet tall, according to SWEPCO's proposal. A 150-foot-wide right of way also would be required along the route.
No public hearings have been held in Barry or McDonald counties in Missouri where the map shows the power line would cross the Arkansas-Missouri border. Neither SWEPCO nor the Arkansas Public Service Commission posted public notifications in Missouri newspapers.