Emotions still run high over BPA transmission line plans

Nearly 300 flood public forum to voice opposition to proposals

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoBPA project manager Mark Korsness speaks to a group of about 300 people who attended a listening forum at the Battle Ground Community Center on Thursday.

(/The Columbian)

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BPA listening forum

Comments are made to BPA officials during a forum at the Battle Ground Community Center.

Comments are made to BPA officials during a forum at the Battle Ground Community Center.

BATTLE GROUND — The project was first floated more than two years ago. But the worry — and emotion — surrounding the Bonneville Power Administration’s proposed transmission line through Clark and Cowlitz counties showed no signs of fading during a public forum in Battle Ground on Thursday night.

Close to 300 people turned out at the Battle Ground Community Center to give the federal power marketing agency an earful, with most of the dozens of speakers living near one of the BPA’s proposed routes.

Opinions varied on what to do with the project. Many appeared weary of the lengthy planning process that’s left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over landowners living on or near one of those routes — without knowing their fate.

“These people have been living in chaos for the last two years,” said Erna Sarasohn, chair of the group Citizens Against the Towers. “These people need to get back to planning their future … You have to give them some freedom and unburden them.”

BPA has laid out four possible routes that could carry the 500-kilovolt line, ranging in cost from $317

million to $407 million, along with several variations. The federal power marketing agency has said the project, running from Castle Rock to Troutdale, Ore., will help ease a strained Northwest power grid.

Since the start, the project has drawn strong opposition from residents with property and health concerns. Many residents — through the groups Citizens Against the Towers, Another Way BPA and the Yale Valley Coalition — have advocated for their own proposed “Grey Line” that would push the line and its 150-foot towers farther north and east than any of BPA’s proposed routes.

That idea seemed to hold strong support Thursday night, as citizens urged BPA to “go east” with the line. The majority of speakers appeared to agree. BPA project manager Mark Korsness said Thursday that the agency is “just completing” a monthslong study of the Grey Line, and should make a decision soon on whether to add it as a route option. The Grey Line hasn’t been included in any formal plans so far.

No decisions were made Thursday. The gathering was framed as a listening session only, with Korsness and Maryam Asgharian, BPA public involvement coordinator, sitting silently at a front table. At the beginning of the meeting, Korsness acknowledged many residents’ unhappiness with the past two years of planning and outreach.

“We understand that this whole process is probably taking longer than you would like,” Korsness said. “Tonight is part of the process we want to include so that we are informed and can make really good decisions.”

Before any speakers stepped up to the microphone, a group of Vancouver-area schoolchildren sang a song about the project, ending with the line, “Remember, the children are counting on you.” A BPA analysis released this month showed the west route into Vancouver passes within 500 feet of three schools and two day care facilities.

Several residents raised health concerns related to electromagnetic fields around large power lines. Sarasohn was among them, saying any doubt of safety should be enough not to put the project close to populated areas.

Not everyone who spoke Thursday supported the Grey Line. One resident said that route would pass near her home. Cheryl Brantley, chair of A Better Way for BPA, reiterated her group’s stance that the line should be built on the west route into Vancouver, mostly on existing federal right-of-way. Where two of the more rural routes would take land from more than 200 parcels, the west route would only directly impact 24 parcels, she said.

BPA officials ruled out a possible route through Oregon more than a year ago. While Clark and Cowlitz counties bear the direct impact of the project, some citizens questioned the benefit to the region.

“Southwest Washington is not the cause for needing this line,” Clark County resident Vivian van Dijk said. “Oregon and California are. Let them carry the burden.”

BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said that’s not entirely true, noting most of the power flowing through the proposed line would be used in the Portland/Vancouver area, and to a lesser extent Cowlitz County. But opponents argue that Southwest Washington isn’t nearly the largest driver of the region’s power load and shouldn’t have the line in its backyard.

BPA plans to release a draft environmental impact statement for the project next spring. That was supposed to happen this month, but was delayed by what BPA called an unprecedented volume of public comment.

The agency is also studying “non-wire” alternatives that could make smaller fixes to the grid, and delay the need for building the line. If it goes on as scheduled, construction could begin as soon as 2013.

Thursday’s crowd thinned as the evening went on. But testimony remained impassioned to the end, often drawing cheers and applause.

Much of the testimony, however, repeated arguments the agency has heard before.

At the end of the meeting, Korsness said the agency hopes to pick a preferred alternative as soon as possible, even if it’s not built right away. Thursday’s input will only add to the process of choosing that option, he said.

“I’m not only moved by what was said,” Korsness said, “but by the passion with which it was said.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.