The power struggle

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 96 views 

Off to the eastern edge of Arkansas’ great Northwest, a battle has been brewing that recently took a rare “conservationist turn,” thanks to the often maligned U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What kind of battle would a coalition of concerned conservationists, average citizens and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be seen in concert locking arms to protest?

It was a classic N.I.M.B.Y. scenario, often found in a growing region like Northwest Arkansas. (N.I.M.B.Y., as we all know, is short for: “Not In My Back Yard.”)

For some time now Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) has been trying to find the best route for a new multi-million dollar 345-kilovolt power line from western Benton County to the eastern edge of Carroll County. It has been a real public relations nightmare for the electric utility.

Everyone, it seems, wants increased electrical power available for business and residential growth in the region. We all like a stable source of energy. But no one wants to see these high metal towers with giant electrical cables strung across their community’s landscape.

Several emotional public hearings have already been held in the region. Hundreds of people have voiced their disapproval and thousands of letters of protest have been filed with the state Public Service Commission. It is the Arkansas PSC which will determine which of these proposals designed to route this major power line across north Arkansas and Southern Missouri, it will allow.

SWEPCO says the new route will be necessary to deliver needed additional power to the growing areas in the eastern portions of its service area. So how on earth could the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers help out regular citizens and staunch conservationists in a fierce battle against an encroaching public utility?

An administrative law judge with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, in fact, removed three of the six routes proposed for this massive electrical power line, after a letter from Randy Hathaway, district director of  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, surfaced. The letter, entered into the written record convinced Judge Connie Griffin, the administrative law judicial officer presiding over the case, caused her to immediately cut the three proposed routes.

The three routes deleted from the six routes proposed by SWEPCO were to have gone over “undisturbed” parts of Beaver Lake, the huge public water system lake (built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) in both Benton County and Carroll County.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers engineer, in effect, told the judge (and the PSC) they will not make the land available for the transmission line because other practical alternatives in the area are available.

And here is the kicker.

Eminent domain, the legal action that allows federal, state and local governments or public utilities, often to “take” lands from citizens, does not apply to federal property. So, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may use “eminent domain”  to take your personal property, but the same “eminent domain” cannot be used by the state public service commission to take federally controlled land.

Who knew?

And there was more than just the federal lands directive. There were instances where the Corps has granted such permits, but these are lines that go across lakes and streams.

Folks in Eureka Springs may breathe, perhaps, a sigh of relief. They will get the benefits of the increased power grid – without all the ugliness of new high-voltage lines littering their immediate scenic view.

Mayors, County Judges, plus all kinds of conservationists have, in fact, linked arms to prevent several of the six proposed routes from coming near such tourist meccas as Eureka Springs and Holiday Island. Now we get to hear the cries of some different mayors, those residing in Cave Springs, Bethel Heights and Springdale, in particular,  which are in the centrally located routes left on the drawing board, are demanding to be heard and the lines routed away from their cities.

This is no easy decision.

Six metal towers, ranging from 130 feet to 160 feet tall would be placed every mile along the proposed routes. A 150-foot wide right of way will also be required, much of it over very rough terrain.

Nor a cheap one. The three routes range from $96.3 million to $117.4 million to construct.

The electrical utility says after rights-of-way acquisition and construction scheduled to begin by March 2015, SWEPCO hopes to have the line in service by June 2016.
One of the final hearings on the proposed high voltage line will be held in Little Rock next week (Aug. 26).

And then comes the hard decision of picking the route from the three remaining choices.