Power line hearings likely delayed
State Public Service Commission hearings on the West Virginia portion of a 240-mile power line from Pennsylvania to northern Virginia are expected to be delayed until early next year, commissioners indicated Friday.
More than a dozen lawyers gathered at the PSC's Charleston headquarters Friday for a status hearing on the proposal.
The PSC did not formally announce a hearing date, but Commissioner Jon McKinney said they are learning toward a January starting date.
Commissioners are expected to set aside several weeks to hear evidence and arguments over Allegheny Energy's proposal to build the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL.
A series of public hearings in the affected areas of northern West Virginia is also expected to be scheduled, probably for sometime in October.
Allegheny Energy says that the $1.3 billion, 500-kilovolt-transmission line is needed to feed electricity to big eastern cities and their sprawling 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.
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.
Before Allegheny can build the power line, the company needs PSC approval.
And 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."
The PSC must also determine whether the project "will result in an acceptable balance between reasonable power needs and reasonable environmental factors."
Originally, PSC officials appeared headed toward scheduling an evidentiary hearing on TrAIL sometime in late October or early November.
But on Tuesday, PSC staff lawyer Caryn Watson Short filed a motion seeking to delay the proceedings.
Short told commissioners that PSC staff lawyers, financial experts and engineers needed more time to examine the impacts of the power line's 114-mile stretch through West Virginia.
Consultants hired by the staff were not authorized to begin work until Aug. 20, Short said. PSC staffers are also waiting for more data and other backup materials from Allegheny Power, Short said.
The new timeline, if approved by the commission, would also push back the date for a final PSC ruling from late March until early May 2008.
In a June 2007 order, the PSC had said it planned to issue a rule on the power line proposal by March 29, 2008.
That deadline, the order said, would ensure the state did not cede jurisdiction to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by not making a decision within a year of Allegheny Power's March 30, 2007, application.
In 2005, Congress passed legislation to encourage construction of new electrical transmission lines. The law provides "federal backstopping," which gives FERC authority to approve power line projects when states don't act within a year.
The FERC authority extends only to projects located within special "national interest electric transmission" corridors specified by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The area where TrAIL would be located is within a proposed DOE corridor, but the agency has not finalized that designation.
In her motion to delay the hearings, Short said that the one-year time limit for PSC action would not kick in until after DOE finalizes the corridor designation.
So, Short said, the only deadline facing the PSC is a West Virginia law mandating a final decision within 400 days of the power line application, or by May 2, 2008.
Lawyers for Allegheny Power had opposed any delays, arguing that there is a pressing need for the transmission capacity their proposal would provide.
Power company officials argue that the project needs to be completed by June 2011 to avoid potential blackouts and other transmission-related reliability problems. To meet that deadline, they say, a final PSC decision is needed by January 2008.