BPA delivers its count of homes near line routes

Nearby houses just one of many factors in determining line’s path

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Bonneville Power Administration has offered a clearer picture of a proposed new transmission line through Clark and Cowlitz counties. But the release of home counts near four of the possible routes did little to change minds in the public tug-of-war over where to put it.

The federal power marketing agency last week unveiled a detailed tally of how many houses sit near the I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project’s west, central, east and crossover alternatives. That information will be included in the project’s sweeping environmental impact statement due out at the end of this year, but was released early at the request of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, among others.

Here’s what it showed:

• More than 3,000 homes are within 500 feet of the west route right of way that would send the line into Vancouver and cross both Interstate 205 and state Highway 500. There are 174 homes within 50 feet.

• The crossover route passes within 500 feet of 657 homes.

• The central and east alternatives come within 500 feet of 327 and 286 houses, respectively.

The BPA has established four alternative main routes — along with several variations based from them — for the proposed 500-kilovolt transmission line between Castle Rock and Troutdale, Ore. All four would cross the Columbia River at Camas.

The project aims to ease a strained Northwest power grid and support growing energy demands across the region, according to the BPA. Plans continue to move ahead while many citizens with property and health concerns watch closely. But not all of them share the same vision.

“We want to meet the region’s electrical needs, but we also want to be good neighbors to the folks who have been part of this process,” said BPA spokesman Doug Johnson.

Three groups

Among the most active voices are three intertwined citizen groups — Another Way BPA, Citizens Against the Towers, and the Yale Valley Coalition — pushing for a different option entirely. They’ve advocated for a proposed “Gray Line” that would put the line farther east and north than any of the BPA’s proposed routes.

That plan comes within 500 feet of no more than 11 homes, said Terry Constance, chairman of Another Way BPA.

“It drops way down,” Constance said. “When you talk about the difference from one or the other, it’s just huge.”

That option hasn’t been included in official plans so far. But Johnson said the BPA is seriously looking at it before the draft impact statement is put together later this year.

On another side of the debate is A Better Way for BPA, which has pushed for the west alternative that would put the line almost entirely on existing federal right of way without directly impacting private property, said the group’s chairwoman, Cheryl Brantley.

Putting the new transmission line — and its 150-foot towers — in rural areas inevitably means building at least some of it across private property, Brantley said. The Vancouver homes close to the west route already sit near existing power lines, she said.

Herrera Beutler

In late June, Herrera Beutler wrote a letter to BPA Administrator Stephen Wright urging him to build the line across as little private property as possible but also “as far east and away from population centers as possible.” Some rural residents were “very disappointed” to hear that, Brantley said.

“They’re very disappointed that she’s not supporting property rights,” she said, adding they’d like to see the BPA “use their own land.”

The existing transmission line that spans part of Vancouver is a 230-kilovolt line. That’s “nothing” compared to the proposed 500-kilovolt west alternative, Constance said.

That existing line was built before the closest homes arrived, Constance said. Constructing a new, larger line next to neighborhoods, parks and schools would mark a major departure from precedent, he said.

BPA officials have stressed that proximity to homes is only one of many factors that play into which route is chosen. Cost and logistical concerns also matter, Johnson said. The last estimate pegged the project’s cost at $340 million, though the final price tag will depend on which route is chosen.

Even as the BPA moves forward with the corridor project, Johnson said the agency continues to weigh “nonwire” alternatives that could buy some time and delay construction of a new transmission line.

The BPA received a study this year, for instance, looking at smaller energy-efficiency measures to help the grid.

Release of the transmission line project’s environmental impact statement will kick off a new round of public comment into early 2012. Once a choice is made, construction could begin as soon as 2013 — four years after the BPA first introduced the project.

“It is a complex decision,” Johnson said. “There’s no magic formula.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.