Woodward, Okla. —
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) returned to Woodward on Monday to gather more public input on the proposed Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission line project.
Through the Plains & Eastern project, the Houston-based Clean Line Energy is proposing to build high voltage direct current electric transmission line with the capacity to deliver around 3,500 megawatts from wind farms and other power sources in the Oklahoma Panhandle to connect with the Tennessee Valley Authority near Memphis, Tenn. The project will traverse approximately 700 miles across Oklahoma, Arkansas and western Tennessee as it seeks to help supply electricity to load-serving entities in the southeast United States.
Staff from the DOE, it's contractors, and Clean Line Energy were previously in Woodward on Jan. 31 as part of a series of public scoping meetings held across a 3 state region to gather input on the potential environmental impacts of the project.
However, there was an error with the addresses on postcards mailed prior to the Jan. 31 meeting that were meant to inform area landowners who might be impacted by the project about the upcoming meeting.
Jane Summerson is a DOE NEPA compliance officer, whose job is to lead the public scoping meetings and ensure that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is followed as the DOE considers potential participation in the Clean Line project.
"We received reports that a number of people were not receiving their postcards or had not heard about the meeting," Summerson said.
She said her staff then did some research and discovered "an error in the software so that the line that had the name of the city and the zip code was transposed to another house address in our list, so they all turned out to be false addresses."
"Better than 60 percent of the addresses were wrong in the Woodward County area," she said.
Because such a large majority of people in the area who may be personally impacted by the project may have not had the opportunity to participate in the original meeting, Summerson said her team decided to return to Woodward.
"We were not required to come back, but we want the input," she said. "This whole process works better when we have more information and input. So we decided to come back."
And in looking over the crowd that made it out for Monday's meeting at the Woodward Conference Center, Summerson said she believed the second trip was worthwhile.
"Overall I think it's a different group of people than we had last time," she said. "There's a few more people and several are different than those who attended the previous meeting so I think we've reached a broader range of the community, which is what we want."
PUBLIC INPUT ESSENTIAL
Summerson said the DOE was looking to gain a broader range of input.
"Public input is an extremely important part of this process," she said when addressing the crowd of about 60 people to explain the process of drafting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the transmission line project.
Summerson explained that the EIS is intended to explore the potential environmental impacts, both positive and negative, of the proposed energy project. The EIS process also seeks to explore "reasonable alternatives" in order to avoid or mitigate potential negative impacts.
However, since the project will cross over 700 miles across 3 states, Summerson said it is difficult to judge all the potential impacts on the thousands of property owners and other stakeholders across the area without input from those stakeholders.
At Monday night's meeting, there were several area stakeholders who had plenty of input on the proposed project, as well as plenty of questions.
Dan Willits, of Fairview, asked how close the transmission line could be put to homes.
Summerson said that "the general restriction is no homes or structures can be in the easement," which is typically 150 to 200 feet wide.
"So potentially a 200-foot tall transmission line could be placed within 75-feet of a home?" Willits said, noting that's if the transmission line were placed down the center of a 150-foot easement.
"That's the legal minimum, but there's also negotiating between the business and landowners for where the easement will be," Summerson said.
She also said that to her knowledge Clean Line is doing its best to work with landowners.
She said that went beyond the placement of the easement, but also in the manner that an easement is obtained.
"The goal of Clean Line and the Department of Energy is to the greatest extent possible to avoid eminent domain," Summerson said.
However, some audience members stated they believed that access to federal eminent domain rights is the main reason Clean Line is seeking DOE participation.
"It's not the environment, it's eminent domain that is what this is about," said Sue Selman, representative of the Southern Great Plains Property Rights Coalition, which was formed by area property owners as a response to local growth in the energy industry.
And with the immense size and scope of the project, Willits said, "eminent domain is the only way this gets built."
Summerson agreed that eminent domain would likely be used at some points along the 700-mile long corridor, but said "it's a last resort."
"I know the priority is to negotiate and that Clean Line has shown a willingness to move the line, within reasonable limits, to make the project more acceptable," she said.
Clean Line has also developed a deal with the Southern Great Plains Property Rights Coalition and has its own code of conduct that it follows when negotiating with landowners over easement rights. Mario Hurtado, Clean Line's executive vice president of development, said there is a copy of the agreement available on Clean Line's project website, http://www.plainsandeasterncleanline.com. (To find the agreement, you must click on a link for "Resources," then "Filings," then "Oklahoma," then "click here to view the ALJ's order.")
OTHER CONCERNS FROM THE PUBLIC
Roger Ward, of Fairview, also shared "a whole list" of concerns about the project. Ward said one of his biggest concerns was about the line's potential impact on the water source for his land because "without water we have a desert, but with it we have some of the most incredible and beautiful land in the area."
Ward's other concerns included the line's potential impact on land value; communication interference; whether snow, ice or wind could bring the support structures down; increased traffic on his property and increased truck traffic causing damage to nearby highways.
Mac Benbrook, of Woodward, said that he too had worries about how the line would interfere with communication and electronics, especially with how high-tech farming has become today and the dependence on GPS to get around.
Benbrook said he also has concerns with the line's impact on medical equipment. He said he has a neighbor with a pacemaker, "that resets every time he goes under a high voltage line."
And like Willits, Ward said he was also concerned about how close the transmission lines would be to homes.
"If I wanted to see high wires I would still live in Los Angeles, but I don't, I live in Fairview," he said.
Jordy White said she also believed just the sight of the transmission line would have a negative impact on her quality of life, as well as on her family's income.
White said her family operates a dude ranch in southeast Major County on 5,000 acres along the Cimarron River and as such, "for half of the year, our income comes from bringing people into experience beautiful Northwest Oklahoma."
But if the line is built, White said she doesn't think people will want to come spend money to look at a transmission line, even if it were up to a mile away.
"This could potentially destroy what I and my brothers and sisters have worked for," she said. "And we have family there and there are places of historical value on that land."
Summerson said that information about "rare animals, family cemeteries or an Indian mound, it is those types of details that we're looking for as we try to assess potential easement locations."
She added that all the concerns expressed by those in attendance at the scoping meeting were just the kind of public input the DOE is looking for through the EIS process.
"Every one of those is a good example of the type of comments we're seeking, please make it in a way that will put them on the formal record," Summerson said. "Every one of those comments are the type of environmental impacts that we need to analyze and understand as the DOE considers participation in this project."
Summerson explained that there were a variety of ways to submit a formal comment, including an opportunity Monday night to have a spoken comment recorded by a court reporter.
Comments are also being accepted through an online comment form available at the project website, plainsandeasterneis.com. Comments may also be made by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or sent by postal mail to Plains & Eastern Clean Line EIS, 1099 18th St., Suite 580, Denver, CO 80202.
However, the open comment period is soon coming to a close with comments due by March 21 to be included for consideration as the Environmental Impact Statement is drafted.