SWEPCO plan, study under scrutiny

Friday, August 30, 2013 ~ Updated 8:56 AM
Mick Harrison, left, listens to Stephen Thornhill, center.

LITTLE ROCK -- With dramatics akin to the infamous "Miracle on 34th Street" courtroom scene, the Public Service Commission hearing continued this week on Southwestern Electric Power Co.'s application for approval to build a 345,000-Volt transmission line through Carroll and Benton counties.

Testimony and cross-examination of witnesses Tuesday and Wednesday focused on what SWEPCO opponents called major problems with the utility's Environmental Impact Study that accompanies the utility's application for the mega-power line. The attacks made for two long, dry days of picking apart not only the language of the study by SWEPCO experts but also the methods by which the study was conducted.

In the middle of the day Tuesday came one of a few dramatic scenes this week, which served as a sort of respite for many of the dozens of spectators in the hearing room as they silently watched -- smiles spreading across the faces of many in the opposition group on hand.

By about 15 minutes after Tuesday's lunch recess ended, the palpable tension had resumed along with the proceedings, being held at the Commission offices in downtown Little Rock, as witness testimony continued before the commissioners who will decide whether the mega-line will be built -- and if so, then where.

Then, a scene played out that was reminiscent -- although on a smaller scale -- of the classic holiday film's courtroom scene wherein defenders of Kris Kringle bring in sack after sack of "letters to Santa" to help prove their point. When SWEPCO opponents Save The Ozarks and their attorneys were asked Tuesday afternoon about the thousands of public comments that have been submitted on SWEPCO's power-line route, the room fell silent as two Save The Ozarks members immediately marched out of the hearing room, returning seconds later struggling to carry in tall stacks of 6-inch-thick, giant binders overstuffed with public comments opposing SWEPCO.

Though the movie reference may have been lost on some in the room, the point was made: The public overwhelmingly and almost uniformly opposes SWEPCO's proposed power line -- and they, nor STO -- will be ignored, the STO members seemed to be saying with the display of paper firepower.

On Wednesday, more drama unfolded when it was revealed that the U.S. Department of the Interior had filed as a public comment a letter that it had sent to SWEPCO dated in May. The letter, which officials said should have been filed as evidentiary testimony months ago and not as a public comment, was just filed late Tuesday night.

The letter recommends avoiding each of the proposed routes -- and particularly voices concern about construction along Route 109 -- because "the following federally listed threatened and endangered species are known to occur in this region: the Ozark cavefish, the cave crayfish, gray bat, Indiana bat, Ozark big-eared bat, the Neosho mucket (type of mussel), the rabbitsfoot mussel, the Arkansas Darter (fish that is cousin to perch and walleye), and, of course, the Bald Eagle.

On Wednesday, attorneys argued over whether to admit the letter as evidence and whether they would be able to reference the letter during cross-examination. The questioning of SWEPCO witnesses was allowed to proceed, with some limits.

Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin is overseeing this week's proceedings; 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 counties.

SWEPCO has asked for permission to construct an enormous power line -- the second-largest size currently being constructed in the United States -- from its Shipe Road station in Benton County to a proposed new substation on the Kings River near Berryville. The line would be 48 to 50 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.

WHERE WILL IT END?

Earlier on Tuesday, Melinda Montgomery, transmission planner for Entergy, testified that Entergy has earlier this month approved plans to move forward -- but only if SWEPCO's new power line is approved -- with building an interconnection facility at SWEPCO's proposed Kings River substation so the electricity being brought to the substation by the new 345 kV line could be divided and transferred eastward.

Her testimony confirmed the basis of a recent report in the Lovely County Citizen detailing the energy industry's beginning-level plans to continue the proposed SWEPCO 345kV power line eastward across Carroll County and Northern Arkansas, in at least one if not two enormous new power lines -- one of which could be even larger.

According to planning documents used by two of the overseeing Regional Transmission Organizations that oversee SWEPCO, Entergy and other Northern Arkansas utilities, two new mega-power lines could be constructed and used to ship eastward the power produced by SWEPCO and transmitted the new Kings River substation. One of those lines could be as large as 500,000 Volts, and the other would be 345,000 Volts, according to documents obtained by the Citizen.

Regional Transmission Organizations were tasked and authorized by the federal Energy Policy Act of 2006 to manage the interconnectivity of the nation's electrical grid; they've been given regulatory authority to instruct utilities as to when and where new power lines should be built. It was SWEPCO's overseeing RTO, Southwest Power Pool, that issued to SWEPCO in 2008 a Notice To Construct the 345kV line currently under consideration.

Meanwhile, the first step, an interconnection that would allow Entergy's current lines already in place to hook up with SWEPCO's proposed Kings River substation, is now officially planned as Entergy's next move, if and when SWEPCO's project is approved, Montgomery testified Tuesday.

Montgomery referenced a new "energy connectivity" study for Arkansas completed in July by American Electric Power, which is SWEPCO's parent company. She said Entergy then used that study to finalize its own updated "Energy Construction Plan" for the coming several years, and that Entergy plan, which was completed and released on Aug. 7, includes the new interconnection necessary to make use -- outside of Carroll County -- of the new transmission line and substation that SWEPCO wants to build here.

Entergy formulated its construction plan to help SWEPCO, Montgomery acknowledged. ""The plan is intended to facilitate the Shipe Road to Kings River 345 kV line," she testified.

Upon cross-examination by Eureka Springs resident, intervenor Jeffrey Danos, Montgomery said that -- if SWEPCO's new mega-line is approved -- Entergy's application to build the interconnection facilities at Kings River would be submitted to the Public Service Commision sometime in 2014. If SWEPCO's plan is not approved, Entergy will not move forward with any further construction plans in the area in the immediate future, she said.

MANIPULATING THE STUDY?

Later on Tuesday morning, throughout the day and into the next, SWEPCO witnesses who worked on their Environmental Impact Study, required as part of the utility's construction application, were grilled by STO lead attorney Mick Harrison.

Harrison asked hundreds of questions about not only the "experts'" actual qualifications and work experience, but primarily about the methods in which the study was conducted.

At the heart of the issue was a ranking system the study authors used to evaluate which of more than 100 potential routes would the most feasible for SWEPCO -- and the most likely to gain APSC approval.

Early in the cross-examination of study author Stephen Thornhill, associate project manager for Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co. in Rogers, STO attorney Harrison noted that much of the Environmental Impact Study for the proposed SWEPCO project included the exact same text of earlier EIS's submitted by Burns & McDonnell for other utility project applications to the Commission.

Thornhill replied that yes, previous studies were used as a "template" for this one, and some of the wording may not have been ultimately changed or taken out.

The suspect wording including references to endangered bats believed to be making their homes in the many caves along portions of the three proposed routes, but particularly along Route 33. On an early draft of the EIS, Thornhill in a side comment had written "double check this data; in most cases (the bat habitat areas) can easily be spanned" or built around.

Harrison questioned Thornhill as to why he'd made a conclusion about the bats before he had apparently seen any of the data regarding their locations along the routes. Thornhill replied that he'd based his conclusion on "typical" findings from EIS's for other projects.

Next Harrison quizzed Thornhill about the EIS's rating system for the potential routes that had been identified. Seven criteria were used to "score" each route -- but one of those criteria, "Constructability" or how difficult construction would be in each location along the route, had been deleted from all consideration during the EIS revision process.

"I thought we took this out?" Thornhill had written as comment on a draft revision of the EIS. He was referring to the poor Constructability scores of the preferred proposed routes, Harrison noted, who asked why Thornhill and his coworkers had, in mid-process, decided to change the scoring system after seeing the results.

"There were concerns that that Constructability score was prejudicing the results and the decision was made to remove the Constructability criteria and scores," Thornhill replied, prompting a barely audible gasp by opponents in the audience.

"Wouldn't each criteria have the potential to prejudice the outcome by having a score that would be considered poor?" Harrison asked him.

"Yes," he answered, before continuing with an explanation of sorts. "In doing the Constructability score, we found that the routes with fewer segments had better scores, meaning those routes were supposedly more constructable even though in many cases those routes were longer and had much rougher terrain -- so they had better scores, the routes with fewer segments, even though we had determined they shouldn't have.

"In looking at the different criteria, we said this doesn't make sense, and the problem was the Constructability scores were out of whack," Thornhill added.

"How would you know a certain route's score was out of whack -- simply because it scored low-- just by looking at it?" Harrison inquired.

"The analysis just didn't make sense," Thornhill said. "Looking at the actual route, it didn't pass the smell test you might say."

"Were routes that could have been dropped retained as a result of the Constructability criteria being removed from the scores?" Harrison asked.

Here, Thornhill hesitated, eventually replying: "No, but the Constructability score process was flawed. So the rankings within that were useless to this analysis. We were not able to develop a Constructability score that made sense in these circumstances."

Harrison noted that trying to shape the scores and methodology to "make sense in these circumstances" seemed like a backward method in a study that was supposed to be scientifically sound.

Thornhill defended the study and scoring system, and said that removing one criteria would not likely "wholesale change" a route's score all that much. He could not, however, say for certain that removing the Constructability score hadn't altered the SWEPCO routes' scores substantially. He also could not say whether any of the six originally proposed routes -- particularly the preferred Route 33 -- had scored poorly on Constructability. Instead, Thornhill argued that it wasn't really very relevant anyway.

Since a score is an average of several criteria, removing one criteria is not going to wholesale change a score of a route that much, Thornhill said. "A low score is going to be a low score."

"Well, really, that's only true depending on which criteria you end up deciding to use," Harrison retorted.

The hearing was scheduled to continue with STO expected to call its first witnesses on Wedneday, and last through week's end, depending on how long each witness ends up being cross-examined.

AWAITING A DECISION

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.

Three routes remain as possibilities: Routes 33, 108 and 109.

Route 33, at a cost of about $96 million, travels from Shipe Road near Centerton northeast between Bentonville and Bella Vista, through Garfield and Gateway, traveling north of Eureka Springs through the Beaver and Holiday Island areas over eastward to the new substation on the Kings River near Berryville.

Route 108, at an estimated cost of about $117 million, travels from Shipe Road station southward along the western edge of Cave Springs, across Bethel Heights, then south into Washington and Madison counties, then north near the Kings River to the new substation to be built near Berryville.

Route 109, at an estimated cost of about $102 million, would go north from Shipe Road along the west side of Bella Vista to the Missouri state line, then travel eastward before re-entering Arkansas north of Eureka Springs near the Holiday Island and Beaver areas, then continue eastward to the Kings River substation.

The target date for completion and operation of the project is June 2016. If approved, the project construction could begin as early as March 2015, with right-of-way acquisition and clearing to begin next year.

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