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Power line opponents wary of settlement

Opponents of a new power line across northern West Virginia tried on Friday to chip away at a settlement they worry may have paved the way for the $1.3 billion project.

Environmentalists and area residents quizzed developers during a state Public Service Commission hearing on the settlement between Allegheny Energy and the PSC's staff and consumer advocate division.

Sierra Club lawyer Bill DePaulo acknowledged there are an "increasingly smaller number" of opponents, but said questions remain about the need for and possible impacts of the transmission line.

Commissioners are considering how much - if any - weight to give the settlement when deciding whether to approve construction of the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL. While PSC staff agreed to the settlement, as did the agency's consumer advocate, the settlement does not bind the commissioners themselves.

Allegheny Energy is seeking PSC approval to build the 500-kilovolt line that would carry electricity from southwestern Pennsylvania through West Virginia and into northern Virginia.

Power company officials say the line is needed to provide cheap and reliable power to big Eastern cities and their growing suburbs. But the project has drawn intense opposition from hundreds of West Virginians, who fear it will mar scenic views, lower their property values, and continue what they say is an environmentally damaging reliance on coal-fired power.

As originally proposed, the West Virginia portion of the transmission line would run about 114 miles through six counties, from north of Morgantown, through Monongalia, Preston and Tucker counties, and then across Grant, Hardy and Hampshire counties into Virginia.

Commissioners have set Aug. 2 as the deadline for issuing a ruling in the case.

In mid-April, Allegheny delivered a major blow to its opponents when it convinced the PSC staff and agency consumer advocate Byron Harris to drop their opposition and criticism of the project.

Under the settlement, Allegheny agreed to use an alternate route proposed by the consumer advocate, avoiding areas southwest of Morgantown where opposition has been concentrated. Allegheny also promised to move a transmission operations center in West Virginia and save customers more than $40 million in industry rate reductions, low-income assistance and conservation plans, and deferments of rate hikes to fund transmission line construction.

At the start of Friday's hearing, a lawyer for a natural-gas power plant developer announced that his company was dropping its opposition to PSC approval for TrAIL.

Competitive Power Ventures Inc. lawyer Bob Rodecker did not explain the move, and PSC hearing chairman Jon McKinney refused to allow questions about the issue.

In March, CPV also dropped its opposition to Virginia's approval of that state's portion of the TrAIL project. The move came just before Dominion Resources, one of Allegheny's partners in TrAIL, bought CPV's proposed gas-fired plant in Warren County, Va.

One project opponent, Thomas Hildebrand, questioned whether Allegheny plans to use about $5 million in new federal grant money the company received for the $5 million in energy conservation program assistance promised under the settlement.

The amounts were nearly identical, Hildebrand said, and descriptions of the grant and the settlement sounded similar.

David Flitman, president of TrAIL, insisted there was no connection.

"They are separate projects," Flitman testified. "We have a lot of projects. We fund a lot of things."

A lawyer for the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery and Retreat Center said Allegheny's plans to route the transmission line around his group's facility is not satisfactory. Justin St. Clair said the Bhavana Society prefers its proposal for the company to instead use existing power line rights-of-way for that portion of the project.

Opposition has also surfaced to the settlement's plan to reroute the project so that it runs along existing power lines farther south and from Pruntytown and Mount Storm.

Brad Swiger of Fairmont said that route would place his family's property - and that of his neighbors' - between two high-voltage transmission lines.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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