About 115 well-mannered protesters, counting toddlers and babies in strollers, lined Northeast 41st Street in front of the Bonneville Power Administration’s Vancouver office for an hour Friday.
The bright yellow signs they waved at passing motorists said it all: “Stop BPA! No 15-story towers in populated areas!”
The sun was out and the mood was festive, but the message was all business. The three groups sponsoring the event want the BPA to heed their concerns about routing a new high-voltage transmission line through neighborhoods in Clark and Cowlitz counties.
“Take the beast east!” one sign demanded, a reference to an alternative “gray line” route opponents have proposed that would run primarily through forested land north and east of all the BPA’s proposed alignments. That route, designed by a team of foresters and engineers hired by residents, passes only five home sites, said Erna Sarasohn, who chairs Citizens Against the Towers, one of the sponsors of Friday’s rally. “We’ve talked to the BPA,” Sarasohn said. “There is definitely a way to skirt around those houses.”
Citizens Against the Towers, Another Way BPA and the Yale Valley Coalition, the rally’s sponsors, contend that all four routes under consideration for the BPA’s new I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project would hurt property values and pose health risks to residents living close to the new 500-kilovolt line.
The BPA is preparing a draft environmental impact statement for the project, which it says is necessary to meet increased energy demand from existing users in the Portland-Vancouver metro area and from new potential commercial customers. It expects to complete the draft EIS this fall.
Last month, the federal energy marketing agency released new maps that consolidate the various segments of a proposed new transmission line into four routes: a West Alternative connecting Longview with Vancouver along an existing transmission line and right-of way; a Crossover Alternative that turns east near Merwin Dam and runs south of the North Fork of the Lewis River; and Central and East Alternatives, which run further east.
The initial cost estimate for the project was $340 million, but BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said that will likely change. The West Alternative would be the least costly, he said, because the agency already owns most of the right-of-way along that alignment.
But he said the agency hasn’t dismissed the “gray line” option.
“The door’s not completely closed on that concept,” he told The Columbian. “We are looking at it in greater detail. The plan now is to see if it creates greater benefits than other alternatives.”
Choosing that route would require buying easements from the state Department of Natural Resources and several private timber companies, Johnson said. “The land acquisitions would be quite a bit more and the construction costs might be more” to route the line over rugged terrain and stream crossings, he said.
On Friday, Johnson stood on the sidewalk and chatted with protesters. He said the owner of the land the BPA leases for its office building chose to restrict protesters to public property.
“This is another forum for public comment,” like sending a letter or a comment over the Internet, Johnson said of the rally.
Terry Constance, chairman of Another Way BPA, disagreed.
“Why we’re here is that the BPA doesn’t react to our comments,” he said. “Listening is not enough. We want BPA to take a look at an alternative route.”
The BPA is “hell-bent on putting a line through populated areas of Southwest Washington that serves no Southwest Washington customers and will ruin the lives of thousands of citizens,” said protester Richard Van Dijk.
In fact, Johnson said, more than 80 percent of the power flowing through the new project will serve local needs in Clark and Cowlitz counties and the greater Portland area.
Michele Black brought her twin daughters Kayla and Kira to the rally. A resident of Salmon Creek, she said she’s concerned about “the risk to the health of families, particularly those close to the line,” as well as the impact of the 150-foot towers and high-voltage lines on property values in her neighborhood.
She was one of several at the rally who expressed concern about the potential health impacts of living close to a high-voltage line’s electromagnetic field.
Fran Swenningson, one of the rally’s organizers, said 41,000 elementary school students attend school within one-eighth of a mile, or 220 yards, of a proposed alignment. Both Covington and Orchards elementary schools sit close to a proposed route, she said.
In December, the president of the Washington Education Association wrote to BPA Administrator Steven Wright asking him to “apply the precautionary principle” in selecting a route for the line.
“This principle holds that if a proposed action risks harm to public health, and science cannot demonstrate that the action is not harmful, the action should not be taken,” wrote WEA President Mary Lindquist. She urged the BPA to site the line away from existing schools and sites designated for future schools.
Brian Grant, a pastor at Camas Assembly of God, said the preschool on his church property would be less than 200 feet from one of the high-voltage lines.
“We have a play area right there,” he said. “If there is any chance to choose a route that is further away, as far east as they can take it, “ he hopes BPA will consider it, he said. “We’re not against electricity. We’re saying, ‘Move it to where it’s right, not to where there are homes.’”
Johnson said the BPA “acknowledges the research” that shows “there could be a potential health risk from magnetic fields.” That research is inconclusive, he said.
He said BPA’s current practice is to put its transmission towers in the center of its 150-foot-wide rights-of-way, leaving a buffer of 65 to 75 feet between towers and nearby houses. “We do that for electrical safety,” he said, so that people don’t get shocked if their equipment or trees come in contact with the lines.
Margaret Stapenhorst, who lives in the Pleasant Valley highlands south of Salmon Creek, said one of the alignments the BPA is considering would put a tower within 100 feet of her home. She said property values already are being affected by the BPA’s proposed alignment options.
“Realtors aren’t even showing properties in our area,” she said.
Sarasohn said many people who live along the proposed alignments have stopped spending money on their homes, and that’s affecting Southwest Washington’s economic recovery.
“Property values have already declined due to the economy,” she said. “Many say they are going to be so upside-down on their mortgages they may just walk away.”
Barbara Bloomfield lives in the Minnehaha neighborhood. She said her house sits between two existing transmission towers and could become the site of one or more new 150-foot towers under one BPA alternative. She hopes to retire soon and is concerned about what will happen to her neighborhood if property values decline.
Johnson said the BPA will consider the impacts on property values of the various alternatives in its EIS.
But he added, “We don’t compensate for lost property value. We provide fair market price for any easement we have to acquire. If a situation presented itself where we had to acquire a whole property, we would negotiate the price based on fair market value.”
Bill Nelson, who lives in the Pleasant Valley highlands, had a straightforward reason for taking part in Friday’s rally.
“I view the towers as an eyesore,” he said. “Clark County has been a dumping ground. We don’t need towers running right through populated areas.”
Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.