BPA chief stands by decision to rule out Ore. route

Meeting on proposed power line draws crowd of 400

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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The head of the Bonneville Power Administration on Thursday caught an earful from Southwest Washington elected officials and residents, many of whom demanded the agency consider routing a proposed high-voltage transmission line through Oregon rather than Clark and Cowlitz counties.

“You need to start again, from the beginning,” Hockinson-area resident Richard van Dijk said.

BPA Administrator Steve Wright stuck by his decision, saying an Oregon route probably faces too many technical and practical obstacles to be a realistic alternative. He said current forecasts show that growing energy demand will place critical constraints on the grid by 2016 without a new line.

“I dread the thought of an outage due to our lack of action,” Wright told the crowd. “If there is a severe outage, I would — rightly so — be held accountable. I would be derelict in my duties if I were not pursuing construction of the line.”

Elected officials in Southwest Washington are feeling pressure from thousands of constituents worried about the effects on health and property values from the 500-kilovolt transmission line BPA is proposing to run between Castle Rock and Troutdale , Ore.

Dozens of segments are under consideration, but all run through Clark and Cowlitz counties.

All six elected Clark and Cowlitz county commissioners hosted the public meeting at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds on Thursday night, specifically to focus on Wright’s decision to rule out an Oregon alternative for the line.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Axel Swanson pointedly noted that the Portland area is driving the bulk of the energy demand and that an Oregon route at least ought to be considered. “ Multnomah County has grown in the past five years by an entire Cowlitz County,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd of 400.

He acknowledged Wright does not face an easy choice.

“As commissioner, I also make tough decisions,” Swanson said. “You try to make them based on fairness, and you try to weigh benefit and burden.”

Wright, pressed on this issue repeatedly, told Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke that beefing up the transmission system will benefit everyone in the region. Without it, the risk of blackouts will affect Portland and Vancouver alike.

“It is incorrect to say Southwest Washington will not be a beneficiary of this line,” Wright said.

Bonneville did consider a route from Longview to an existing BPA substation near Wilsonville , Ore., but dropped it last year after identifying too many environmental and technical obstacles.

BPA officials said the half-mile-wide river crossing downstream from Longview would require towers as tall as 400 feet, illuminated by strobe lights in sensitive wildlife habitat. Further, BPA had no existing workable rights-of-way in Oregon; in contrast, one of the agency’s several alternatives in Washington parallels an existing 230-kilovolt line along Interstate 5. The Oregon route also would be longer and likely more expensive, Wright said. Finally, Bonneville officials say, they have no room to expand their Pearl substation in Wilsonville, whereas they do have room in Troutdale.

The project, financed by increased borrowing authority granted by Congress last year, is expected to cost $340 million to $360 million. The existing grid has become congested to the point that Wright said BPA will need the new line by 2016 or risk blackouts.

Wright is due to make a final decision in early 2013.

On Thursday, he said analyzing the Pearl line would add another 18 to 24 months to the process with little benefit.

“Another large group of people would have their lives disrupted, even though this option would likely be unnecessary,” Wright said. “To me, there are no differences between Oregon and Washington residents — they’re all people we serve.”

Given the urgency of the timeline and the thorough study required for each alternative, officials said, it makes sense to focus on the most promising options.

And those happen to be in Southwest Washington , Wright said.

Although the Portland metro area consumes the bulk of the region’s energy load, Bonneville project manager Mark Korsness noted that plenty of rural residents would be affected by sending the line on the Oregon side of the river.

“The people in rural western Oregon where a Pearl route might go would say, ‘Why are you putting it here?’” Korsness said.

In an interview afterward, Wright said he would need compelling evidence to reconsider an Oregon option.

“I’m always open to new information,” he said. “The question is, is there something we didn’t know that would change the calculation we made a year ago?”

County officials prepared for a large crowd, with enough chairs arranged in the cavernous event center to accommodate 500 people.

Terry Constance, a Vancouver-area resident who volunteers with Another Way BPA, acknowledged that the crowd was smaller than anticipated.

“A lot of apathy,” Constance said. “When BPA came out with their alternate lines, we lost some people. Some people think that they’re out of the picture.”

Indeed, Bonneville has shifted some route segments and dropped others since the proposal was first announced in October of last year. Bowing to the concerns of many residents, BPA earlier this year added an eastern route running mainly through private and state forestlands.

However, even though some landowners were removed from consideration, others were actually added. For example, BPA added segments skirting the western edge of the Yacolt Burn State Forest close to a neighborhood east of Battle Ground.

Other more densely populated areas are affected.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart noted that, even though BPA is analyzing dozens of alternative segments, all of them end up in Camas. The east Clark County city will be blighted with towers as large as 150 feet no matter which route BPA selects, Stuart said.

Wright noted that Bonneville already maintains an existing 230-kilovolt line through the city. Yet, it’s been four decades since Bonneville last constructed a major transmission line in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. Even though BPA is considering a route paralleling its existing 230-kilovolt line along Interstate 5, Wright noted that thousands of people will be affected no matter what he decides.

Thursday marked the first time Wright had personally attended a public meeting regarding the I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project.

Bonneville owns and maintains three-quarters of the high-voltage transmission system spanning Washington , Oregon , Idaho and Montana . Wright has served as the agency’s chief administrator since 2000.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551 or erik.robinson@columbian.com.