Missourians say 'no' to SWEPCO's 109: Opposition to interstate power-line route grows among residents, officials

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 ~ Updated 2:48 PM
Route 109

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Missouri residents and officials are lining up in opposition to SWEPCO's plans to route its proposed 345,000 Volt Shipe Road to Kings River transmission line through McDonald and Barry counties in the state's southwest region.

Last week, days after a ruling from Arkansas Public Service Commission Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin recommended that the APSC commissioners approve SWEPCO's Route 109 and grant the utility permission to build the power line, two Missouri legislators introduced a bill to block approval of the construction of SWEPCO's Route 109 in that state.

And late Monday, the McDonald County Board of Commissioners filed a letter of protest with the APSC officially opposing SWEPCO's plans and asking the APSC's ruling three-person commission to set aside Griffin's recommendation and choose one of the other five proposed routes, none of which exit Arkansas.

If Missouri legislators are successful and if McDonald County Commissioners have their way, Route 109 will become an impossible solution, and the other five routes will be back on the table, officials and SWEPCO opponents said.

Missouri state Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, who represents the southwest part of the state, introduced HB 1622 last Thursday. If passed, it will remove from the Missouri Public Service Commission the authority to approve any power lines in McDonald and Barry counties that originate and end in Arkansas and that serve no customers in Missouri.

Fitzpatrick confirmed Monday the bill was written to specifically target SWEPCO's Route 109, which follows a 56-mile-long path, entering Missouri in McDonald County and exiting in Barry County, near Seligman, thus bypassing Arkansas' Pea Ridge, Gateway and Garfield in Benton County.

He said another bill is in the works to oppose Route 109 on a different front: the sticky issue of eminent domain. Fitzpatrick explained that he and others are concerned that SWEPCO may be able to get around obtaining MPSC permission since the utility has no customers within the state and since the Route 109 proposal does not require any power stations or other facilities to be built -- other than the 150-foot-tall power poles erected every 600-800 feet that would require clearing a 150-foot right-of-way.

"We're doing everything we can on our end," Fitzpatrick told the Lovely County Citizen on Monday. "I can't say much more about the second piece of legislation because we're still doing research, but we think between the two bills, we can stop this thing."

Late Monday, the APSC's website showed a new comment filed: a letter of opposition from McDonald County's leading governmental body, the Board of Commissioners.

"As Commissioners of McDonald County, Missouri, we ask that the Arkansas Public Service Commission reject the order of APSC Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin, to build an electric transmission line across three fourths the width of McDonald County. This line is for the purpose of distribution, use and needs of Northwest Arkansas," the letter states.

SWEPCO has not notified any residents or Missouri governmental agencies of its intentions regarding Route 109, the Commissioners' letter notes.

"It is our desire to be good neighbors, respecting Arkansas' sovereignty, and to refrain the seeking of arbitrary rulings that would be beneficial only for Missouri, with no obvious concern for the citizenry of Arkansas or any other bordering state. We ask, no we demand, that same level of cooperation and respect be given to Missouri and its citizens," the Commissioners' letter continues.
"We pray you set aside Judge Griffin's order, and use one of the other five alternative routes. We feel you would expect no less of our Commission."

ALL ROUTES BACK ON THE TABLE

Indeed, if Fitzpatrick and crew are successful, or if the APSC even believes they may eventually be successful, the APSC will be forced to reconsider the remaining five routes -- and ultimately choose one of them, with Route 109 approval in Missouri a virtual impossibility.

This affects every one of the hundreds of western Carroll County residents who live on or near one of the five routes, because it means everyone, once again, is at risk equally.

Save The Ozarks leaders and members already on Monday night were pleading with SWEPCO opponents and local residents to remember that SWEPCO's tactics have been to try to "divide and conquer," and that the opposition argument should remain focused on the fact that the power-line project is not needed at all, anywhere, and that the entire project should be rejected.

At an STO informational meeting last Thursday, the opposition group's co-founder, Pat Costner, urged residents to remain vigilant in their fight against the project and to keep sticking together as a united front against all the routes. She also thanked the two dozen or so Missouri residents who attended the meeting held at The Auditorium.

Several of the Missourians said they were shocked at Griffin's ruling, considering that Missouri landowners along Route 109 have still never been notified by SWEPCO, that Route 109 has all along been SWEPCO's least-preferred route, and that it is unprecedented for a non-public utility to construct a power line through Missouri -- especially when it serves no customers in that state.

One of the McDonald County Commissioners that signed the letter of protest, John Bunch, told the Joplin Globe last week that Griffin's decision is "totally unacceptable."

"We were told that Route 109 was completely off the board, and we took their word for it," Bunch said in the Globe article dated Jan. 25. "Missouri receives absolutely not one single kilowatt from this. No one in the state of Missouri was informed of this. There were no public hearings here."

Additionally, Missouri opponents pointed to other issues with the route: namely, Route 109 is within the known breeding range of the federally endangered Indiana bat, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

During the APSC hearings in August, AEP's Brian Johnson, testifying on behalf of SWEPCO, said Route 109 presents special challenges and an unprecedented regulatory process because it crosses a state line.

"The likely regulatory delays and complications that arise from the line route in Missouri are of substantial concern," Johnson said.

WHAT'S NEXT

Any entity seeking approval to build power facilities in Missouri must obtain a certificate of convenience and necessity from the MPSC; SWEPCO had not yet applied for that nor had it filed a notice of intent to file or anything else for that matter, a MPSC spokesman said Monday.

Main at SWEPCO said the utility is making plans to start the regulatory application process in Missouri.

Once the notice of intent has been filed, SWEPCO then has 60 days to file its application with the MPSC; then the commission would set a deadline for intervening parties to participate and potentially set dates for public hearings.

Missouri law does not specify how long the commission has to issue a ruling on SWEPCO's application, but once it it does rule, the commission's decision can be appealed in court, much like in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, the APSC commissioners, under statute, must issue their final ruling by Feb. 17. They may accept Griffin's ruling, alter it or decline it altogether and choose a completely separate route, or they may choose some combination of the different routes, officials have said.

Feb. 17 also is the deadline for intervenors such as Save The Ozarks to apply for a re-hearing with the APSC. STO is planning to do so and its leaders say they believe that because of inconsistencies and omissions in written and oral testimony -- particularly regarding the Environmental Impact Study -- approval for a re-hearing is a strong possibility.

Once the commission issues its final ruling, opponents have 30 days to petition the Arkansas Court of Appeals to review the ruling. The likely deadline for that petition is March 17, said Costner with STO.

A decision from the Court of Appeals would likely come by this fall. If opponents still are unhappy with the ruling, it can then be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the final decision-makers in cases such as these.

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