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Power line deal includes free electricity for some

Allegheny Energy will provide free electricity to certain residents along the route of a $1.3 billion power line across northern West Virginia, under a deal announced Monday afternoon.

The company will also severely limit clearcutting and not use aerial herbicide spraying to maintain the power line right of way, under the settlement with the state Public Service Commission's Consumer Advocate Division.

Allegheny announced the deal just two days before Wednesday's start of the PSC's formal evidentiary hearings on the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL. The tentative settlement requires PSC approval.

"This agreement demonstrates that reasonable and fair solutions can be achieved for this critical project," David E. Flitman, president of Allegheny Power and the TrAIL Co., said in a news release.

But major opposition to the TrAIL project remains, including a recommendation from PSC staff experts and attorneys that the agency reject the company's application.

In a prepared opening statement filed Friday, PSC staff lawyer Caryn Watson Short said that Allegheny has not met the legal test for receiving agency approval.

"The company has failed to meet its state statutory requirement of evaluating the need for action, balanced with environmental impacts and economic benefits, at the expense, at least in part, of West Virginia ratepayers and landowners," Short said in the statement.

Allegheny, through its TrAIL Co. subsidiary, is seeking PSC approval to build the West Virginia portion of the 500-kilovolt line to 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 otherwise damage rural communities.

Commissioners must decide if the power line will "economically, adequately and reliably contribute to meeting the present and anticipated requirements for electric power of the customers served" and if it is "desirable for present and anticipated reliability of service for electric power for its service area or region."

The PSC also must decide if the project "will result in an acceptable balance between reasonable power needs and reasonable environmental factors."

As proposed, the project would run through six West Virginia counties. It would enter the state north of Morgantown, and run south and east through Monongalia, Preston and Tucker counties to a substation near Mount Storm in Grant County. Then, it would extend east for 47 miles through Grant and Hardy counties and into Hampshire County, before entering Virginia near Capon Springs.

As part of the partial settlement, PSC consumer advocates agreed not to dispute the need for the power line, as the agency staff and citizen opponents continue to do.

"We don't support the need," said Byron Harris, chief of the PSC consumer advocate office. "We're just neutral."

Harris said that the partial deal addresses the top three complaints he heard from residents along the power line during public hearings last year: Limit clearcutting, avoid aerial herbicide spraying and provide some long-term payments for residents forced to give the project rights-of-way across their land.

Under the free electricity provision, TrAIL will make payments for property owners to its sister power companies in amounts equal to offset an amount equal to an average residential customers' annual electric bill.

Harris said that the consumer advocate office retained its right to continue to push for changes in the power line route, including numerous minor routing adjustments to minimize impacts on specific landowners.

More importantly, Harris said, his office will continue to push for an alternative called the "Grafton Area Route."

This route would avoid populated areas south and southeast of Morgantown, by running south toward Grafton and east from there toward Rowlesburg, along the route of an existing transmission line.

In new testimony filed Friday, Harris said that the PSC should consider forcing Allegheny to study following that route all the way to Mount Storm. That would take the line through Maryland, which would require approval from regulators there, something that Allegheny had hoped to avoid.


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