The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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April 6, 2014

Missouri legislators hear SWEPCO bill

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Missouri Senate panel heard testimony last week on a bill that would block Southwestern Electric Power Co. from forcing landowners in Barry and McDonald counties to sell their property for a large transmission line.

The bill by Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, would restrict the eminent domain power of utility companies in Missouri in cases in which a transmission line originates and terminates in a state other than Missouri.

Although SWEPCO is not mentioned in the bill, the intent is clear.

All three McDonald County commissioners were in Jefferson City last week to testify in favor of Sater’s proposal. John Bunch, the Eastern District commissioner, said the bill would set a precedent for other counties in the state potentially facing the same issue.

He said the line could be a deterrent for people who might want to move to McDonald County, and that it could cause others living on long-held family farms to move away if their land was acquired by the utility.

“We are the crossroads in the county with real opportunity to expand what we have,” he said. “We don’t want to see that circumvented by a utility that will never be used in Missouri. It will disrupt at least 139 families. These are some farms that have been there for many decades.”

Kevin Reeves, managing director of energy trading and marketing at American Electric Power — SWEPCO’s parent company — has previously testified in Jefferson City against Sater’s bill.

Earlier this year, an administrative law judge for the Arkansas Public Service Commission ruled that the transmission line should take the northernmost of several proposed routes — through Southwest Missouri, before dipping back down into Arkansas.

Reeves said his company began developing plans for a transmission line when the Southwest Power Pool — of which SWEPCO is a member — identified deficiencies in the regional electric grid. The Southwest Power Pool operates the electric grid in nine states, and it is required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure reliable electric supply and transmission infrastructure. The Southwest Power Pool mandated that SWEPCO build the high-voltage transmission line to provide power to fast-growing Northwest Arkansas, and it has ordered that the line be in service by June 1, 2016.

SWEPCO proposed six routes to the Arkansas PSC, and five of them passed entirely through Northwest Arkansas; those five were rejected by regulators. Some of the routes were highly contested because of their potential impact on tourism and historic sites in Northwest Arkansas, including Pea Ridge National Military Park and Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs.

Under the proposed sixth route, known as Route 109, the transmission line would originate in Benton County, Ark.; go north into McDonald County; then turn east into Barry County before dropping south into Carroll County, Ark. Twenty-five miles of the line would be built on the Missouri side of the state line, and 31 miles of the line would be in Northwest Arkansas.

“Anybody looking at the line objectively can say that without a doubt, Route 33 is the most preferred route with the exception of the people involved in politics in Arkansas. To me, it is pretty clear why they made the decision they made,” said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob. Fitzpatrick was joined at the hearing by Rep. Bill Lant, R-Pineville, in support of Sater’s bill.

Route 33 is a more direct route through Benton and Carroll counties in Arkansas. It generated rallies, protests and an outburst of opposition from landowners, operators of tourist and historic sites, and others in the path of the line, which would require a 150-foot right of way for towers standing between 130 and 160 feet tall.

Reeves said his company preferred the Arkansas route, but the Southwest Power Pool’s directive does not respect state borders.

SWEPCO has appealed the decision with the Arkansas Public Service Commission and has proposed a modified Route 33 in Northwest Arkansas. The regulators are expected to rule this month on the company’s request for a new hearing.

If the Arkansas PSC rules that the company should continue to move forward with Route 109, SWEPCO would then take its case to the Missouri Public Service Commission, and it would have to apply to be a utility in the state of Missouri. If the plan were approved by the Missouri PSC, the company would be allowed eminent domain powers, which Sater’s bill is aiming to restrict.

Bunch, the McDonald County commissioner, said he is unhappy with the utility. He said it did not make an effort to inform residents on the Missouri side of the line that they could be in the path of the transmission line.

“We were never informed of anything formal that this line was going to come through Missouri,” he said, adding that he learned about it through the Globe and a local farmer who had caught word.

Reeves said that regardless of where the line goes, Missouri residents will benefit from the increased reliability of the entire regional electric grid.

“There’s a 14-county region that will benefit, (and that) includes ratepayers in Missouri,” he said. “It’s a regional line with regional benefits.”

During the hearing last week, some Missouri lawmakers seemed skeptical about a special law to prevent one entity — in this case, SWEPCO — from doing something.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee, said that if SWEPCO does try to build the line through Missouri, it should be ready for a challenge.

“If Arkansas says ‘no’ and Missouri says ‘no,’ we’d have to go back to SPP (Southwest Power Pool),” Reeves said, to which Lager responded, “You might want to let them know the hill is steep and the storm clouds are moving in.”

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