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PSC staff seek to block PATH power line

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Staff members with the West Virginia Public Service Commission are urging commissioners to throw out an application to build the $2 billion PATH power line, saying that less-expensive alternatives should be considered first.

PSC staff attorneys also argue that alternatives might be less environmentally damaging and that it's "ludicrous" for the commission to move forward with the PATH project without fully examining other options.

"The commission does not have all the information it needs to properly evaluate this project and reasonable alternatives," PSC staff lawyers said in a recent filing.

The commission has not acted on the staff motion, which was filed last week. Project developers American Electric Power and Allegheny Power have not responded, but dozens of PATH opponents have filed papers supporting the staff's motion.

AEP and Allegheny are seeking PSC approval for the West Virginia portions of the 765-kilovolt line -- called the Potomac Appalachian Highline, or PATH -- that would start at the John Amos power plant in Putnam County and run more than 275 miles into Maryland.

Power company officials say the project is needed to shore up the nation's ailing electrical grid and, as proposed, "minimizes the effect on the natural and human environment."

The project faces strong opposition, though, in part because PSC approval would allow the power company to use eminent domain to obtain rights-of-way from landowners. Other critics say PATH, like the already approved TrAIL power line, is little more than a huge extension cord to allow more pollution-causing coal-fired power to be sent from Appalachia and the Ohio Valley to East Coast population centers.

Also, as the PSC staff motion indicates, opponents of PATH increasingly have been pointing to questions about whether the nation's utility grid managers - at a private company called PJM -- are fully considering alternatives when they back projects like the PATH line.

"The absence of a full range of information concerning the timing of the need for PATH and alternatives to PATH is partially the result of a bias in the current PJM process," the PSC staff motion said.

The staff motion noted the recent decision by Dominion Energy to rebuild its aging Mt. Storm-Doubs power line, concerns about which were among the justifications for TrAIL and even more so for PATH. Staff members also noted plans for the new Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway in Maryland.

"The commission has no idea of whether and how these changes impact the urgency of this project," the staff motion said. The staff noted that Dominion has proposed its Mt. Storm-Doubs project and other power line upgrades as potential alternatives to PATH.

"The question that comes to mind given those factors is does PATH represent a reasonable balance between reasonable power needs and reasonable environmental factors when there is an alternative that will have substantial lower environmental impacts that resolves the identified power problems in the near and medium term?" the staff lawyers wrote. "Staff believes this application is further deficient due to the lack of that analysis and should be dismissed."

Last year, commissioners rejected a similar motion by the PSC staff. A formal hearing on the project is scheduled to start March 21, and the PSC is due to rule by July 28.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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