The Appalachian Power hearings are scheduled to run through at least Thursday, and the PSC hearing room in Charleston was initially packed Tuesday morning with lawyers, witnesses and spectators.
PSC Chairman Michael Albert said the commission expects to hear from 19 witnesses as it tries to sort out the more than $1 billion transaction. Commissioners held hearings in the similar FirstEnergy case in late May, but have yet to issue a ruling.
In PSC cases, most of the evidence comes through prepared testimony that is filed prior to the in-person hearing. At the hearings themselves, lawyers for various sides focus on cross-examining other parties' witnesses.
So for most of Tuesday's session, lawyers for the PSC's Consumer Advocate Division, the West Virginia-Citizen Action Group and a collective of large energy users grilled Patton about Appalachian Power's proposal.
For example, WV-CAG lawyer Bill DePaulo tried unsuccessfully to get Patton to explain how - or if - Appalachian Power's review of the deal had taken into account the potential costs of cleaning up coal-ash impoundments at both John Amos and Mitchell.
Patton didn't explain exactly how those costs were factored into the finances of the deal, instead answering several times that he believed Appalachian Power complies with federal and state coal-ash rules, and is upgrading its disposal practices to meet any new government regulations.
"Yeah, something could happen with the fly ash fill," Patton said. "We don't think it will, because we've managed it and we've managed it for years. There's risk in whatever you do."
Eventually, Albert -- a former utility lawyer -- ordered DePaulo to move on to another topic, and to stop trying to enter media accounts and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents about the dangers of coal ash into the PSC's hearing record.
Under cross-examination by West Virginia Energy Users Group lawyer Derrick Williamson, Patton conceded that the power plant ownership transfers themselves could prompt a $130 million increase in base rates for Appalachian customers.
Patton, though, said that sort of a rate hike could be avoided if the commission instead agrees to simply not give customers a separate rate decrease that they would otherwise have coming in a separate proceeding.
Williamson pressed Patton on whether Appalachian Power would move forward with the power plant ownership transfers if the PSC didn't provide that sort of immediate cost recovery for the company.
"I can't agree to that," Patton said. "I don't know how my company supports that."
Tuesday's hearing also featured several public comments, including one in which Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, offered strong support for the Appalachian proposal, saying it would help preserve jobs in his area.
"It seems to be a win-win situation," said Kessler, who added, "I fail to see any of the downside. I'll leave it to the numbers-crunchers to make that argument."
West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney and United Mine Workers member Roger Horton, who formed a group called Citizens for Coal, also testified in favor of the proposal, saying it would help protect coal jobs.
Later, Patton testified that the Amos and Mitchell plants appear to be in no danger of closing, regardless of whether the PSC approves their transfer to Appalachian.
Robin Wilson, with the group West Virginia 350, urged commissioners to consider coal's contributions to global warming. "Rather than spending money on coal power, we should be spending it dealing with climate change," Wilson said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.