Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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East Clark County residents uneasy about BPA lines

Property owners find little comfort in final impact statement for I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project transmission lines

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Bill Campbell takes in the view from his deck. He said he thinks the government should bury the proposed high-voltage power line to preserve views and property values, and to protect the environment.
Bill Campbell takes in the view from his deck. He said he thinks the government should bury the proposed high-voltage power line to preserve views and property values, and to protect the environment. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

From the deck of his home in the Washougal hills, Bill Campbell has a sweeping view of the Columbia River and Mount Hood. But a less picturesque element of the vista is the Bonneville Power Administration’s high-voltage power lines standing above the neighborhood and running downhill to parallel the river below.

More troubling for Campbell are the new and much larger transmission lines BPA might build in place of the originals.

“Our real estate agent warned us about the proposed ones,” he said, referring to when he and his wife, Katherine, bought their home three years ago. It gave the couple some pause, but not much. Campbell knew it was early in the process and he could get involved.

“Today, I would have been more cautious,” he said.

After six years of project development by BPA and two months after the release of the final environmental impact statement of the proposed I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project, some people living in the project’s potential corridor are still worried about what the future holds.

While the BPA has not yet decided to build the power line, officials say the $722 million, 500-kilovolt line is necessary to meet the Portland-Vancouver metro area’s growing energy needs. BPA says they are aware of the sensitivities connected to siting a transmission line from Castle Rock to Troutdale, Ore.

“This project is being scrubbed harder than any (previous) project that I’m aware of,” I-5 Corridor Project Manager Mark Korsness said. “We’re going the extra effort to be sure we consider everything before we decide.”

Officials say they reviewed more than 10,000 comments submitted on the draft environmental impact statement, and adjusted, but ultimately stuck with, the preferred route that was identified in 2012.

It’s the best alternative, Korsness said, because it brings the transmission lines within 500 feet of only 300 homes — as opposed to 3,000 homes if BPA had decided on a route that used its existing right of way.

Still, some people who live along the 79-mile transmission line’s proposed path continue to argue the changes weren’t substantial and their concerns weren’t adequately addressed.

“It’s an invasion,” said Ray Richards, a Dole Valley property owner and chairman of A Better Way for BPA, a citizens group advocating for a different route. “It rips through the middle of people’s property; it goes right through my 200 acres.”

Richards lives in Vancouver, but he worries about the impacts BPA’s lines could have on the environment and property values. For the last several years, he’s actively organized people to speak against the proposed route. Furthermore, he says the agency has done little to convince the public of the project’s necessity. And, he says, BPA hasn’t assuaged concerns that the project is really about moving cheap power to California. If the line is necessary, he argues, BPA should use its existing rights of way rather than create new ones.

BPA would use its existing right of ways in Campbell’s Washougal neighborhood, but it would mean replacing the two rows of 80-foot towers with ones that could be as tall as 185 and 275 feet.

Campbell advocates for BPA to bury the lines in residential areas like his, and in Castle Rock to preserve a view and an environment that he says are unparalleled.

As a former 30-year employee of the Department of Defense, he scrutinized the project’s draft environmental impact statement. He acknowledged BPA looked at burying 6 miles of line in Camas and Castle Rock, and conceded the combined $300 million price tag to bury them was high, but he didn’t think the study fully considered all the possibilities.

“There’s a well-thought-out process a government agency is supposed to go through,” Campbell said, though he concedes he didn’t look at the statement of work for the final impact statement.

Korsness said the BPA doesn’t take the I-5 project lightly. It’s been on its radar for decades, and the agency and its partners, he says, have “developed and utilized some extraordinary means of squeezing the most we can out of the existing system” — but the region’s rapid population growth and subsequent increased summertime power consumption are pushing the limits of the current network.

He also said BPA engineers further explored burying part of the lines in the final environmental impact statement. While it was technologically feasible, it was still far more expensive. Buried lines also would be more difficult to repair.

The new line would be built to serve Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon, and it being a transmission line, power would flow from Canada to California, but only as an added benefit.

“But if that was the only reason, we wouldn’t be building it,” Korsness said.

BPA planners spent six years working to engage the public by meeting with local governments, elected officials and residents. Although the first comment period is closed, the agency will still take comments and will continue to engage the public.

Korsness acknowledges the impacts are real and realizes it’s an emotional issue for people.

“I’ve made a point to offer to visit those with concerns and stood on the decks (in Camas and Washougal) to make sure I get a sense of what they’re concerned about,” he said.

The agency officials say they chose the route they did because it minimized impacts on people and it separated the two main corridor lines, which improved the odds of reliability if a landslide or fire were to happen on the route. After reading the public’s comments, BPA moved the line to avoid some wetlands and made several other considerations to private property, but with so many people spread throughout the area, some conflicts would be inevitable.

“It’s been 40 years since we’ve built a high-voltage line west of Cascades; most have been in the east where people aren’t,” Korsness said. “It’s harder to do it here. We understand that. That’s why we’re taking the extra time to study all the issues.”

The final decision will be made by BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer, but that isn’t expected before the end of the year.