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PATH map made public

A new high-voltage electrical transmission line would stretch for 280 miles across West Virginia, from the outskirts of Charleston to just beyond the state's Eastern Panhandle, under a proposal made public Friday by American Electric Power and Allegheny Power.

If approved by the state Public Service Commission - as well as regulators in Virginia and Maryland - the Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline, or PATH, would cross a dozen West Virginia counties and cost $1.8 billion.

Power company officials said 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 PATH project is vital to the reliability of the electricity grid serving this region," said Michael G. Morris, president of Columbus, Ohio-based AEP.

"We understand the concerns about the impact of transmission lines and will work with the states and landowners to address concerns," Morris said, "but it is critical that we reinforce the transmission infrastructure to ensure we can continue to supply reliable electrical service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

However, PATH promises to face an even bigger fight than the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL. That project, a 500-kilovolt line across Northern West Virginia, was approved by the PSC in August 2008. The West Virginia Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by the Sierra Club environmental group.

Weeks before the formal application for PATH was filed, dozens of residents had already filed objections with the PSC. The state Sierra Club and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy announced opposition to the project.

"For West Virginians, PATH is primarily about two coal-based electrical power companies combining their efforts to cause to be mined and burned even more coal through mountaintop removal and other strip mining methods," said Frank Young, chairman of the Conservancy's power line subcommittee.

PATH, a 765-kV line, has been in the works for more than three years, since AEP proposed its I-765 project, which included a much longer stretch of transmission line reaching into New Jersey. For now, though, the company is seeking regulatory approval only for the 280-mile section that starts northwest of the John Amos Power Plant near Winfield, Putnam County, and ends at a proposed new substation at Kemptown in Frederick County, Md.

Maps unveiled Friday morning show the proposed route cutting across northern Kanawha County and through parts of Roane and Calhoun counties before running through the middle of Braxton County north of Sutton. From there, the proposed route turns northeast across Upshur and Barbour counties. Then, it turns east and cuts across Tucker County and the northern edge of the Monongahela National Forest, and then across Grant, Hardy and Hampshire counties.

The proposed route crosses into Maryland before coming back across Jefferson County south of Charles Town, and then on east into Maryland.

Details of the numbers of homes and other buildings affected, stream crossings and other impacts were not available. AEP officials said those were contained in a routing study filed Friday with the PSC, but not made public by the company or the agency Friday afternoon. More detailed testimony from the company to support its belief that the power line is needed is yet to be made public.

Also, landowners along the route will still not know exactly the impact on their homes. Routing maps chart a 2,200-foot-wide corridor, inside which a 200-foot right of way for the transmission line and towers would be built.

Under state law, if the PSC approves the project, the power company can take a right of way through eminent domain if landowners refuse to go along with the project.

Press materials released by AEP also did not include figures for what sorts of rate increases would be sought to pay for PATH. Company spokesman Phil Moye later put the figure at 67 cents a month for an average customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours per month. That's on top of the current cost of $72 per month. AEP's Appalachian Power already is seeking to increase that average cost to about $84 per month, according to Moye.

Friday's filing of the formal application for the PATH project starts a 400-day clock ticking under state law for the PSC to approve or reject the proposal.

Commissioners are expected to set deadlines for various parties - the PSC staff, consumer advocate and citizens - to file responses. Then, the PSC likely will set public hearings in the affected areas, as well as formal evidentiary hearings in Charleston.

Before it can approve the project, the PSC must confirm that the power line "will economically, adequately and reliably contribute to meeting the present and anticipated requirements for electric power of the customers served ... and desirable for present and anticipated reliability of service for electric power for its service area or region."

State law also says the PSC must determine whether the project "will result in an acceptable balance between reasonable power needs and reasonable environmental factors."


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