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November 18, 2012

Clark County residents upset with power lines’ possible impact

TERRE HAUTE — From a Christmas tree farm to an Illinois town’s radio station, Marshall-area residents fear a proposed new high-voltage power line could destroy their way of life.

Emotional energy was in no short supply on that topic last week at a meeting inside St. Mary’s Parish Center of Marshall. More than 100 residents attended the meeting Wednesday to protest a proposed 345,000-volt line, which could run right through their community and others throughout the state.

Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois has announced its hope to construct the Illinois Rivers transmission line, which is proposed to run from Palmyra, Mo., to about a mile inside Indiana, just west of Terre Haute where it would tie into the Sugar Creek Substation jointly owned by Duke Energy and Northern Indiana Public Service Co. The project has been estimated to cost between $890 million and $1.4 billion, according to company officials.

The lines would be run on above-ground poles per current proposals. But Friday, Tony Trimble, manager of the Clark Farm Bureau, said one of the landowners’ complaints is the amount of space surrounding those structures. The poles themselves would range in height from 80 to 120 feet, each set 700 to 1,000 feet apart, he said. The base of each pole will be set in concrete, about 50 feet deep. But a 6-foot wide concrete base will most likely be left protruding from the ground. The proposed right-of-way easements are 150 feet, but that’s in addition to the existing power lines which already run throughout the county. Those existing poles are about 500 feet apart, he said, pointing out that another set running alongside them at even 1,000 feet apart makes for a real mess.

“How would you feel if someone stuck a pole in your living room?” he said Friday afternoon. Farmers trying to navigate their tractors and combines around those poles face a real challenge, and they are liable for any damage if they accidentally strike one, he said.

Public open houses to discuss the project have been hosted by the company in the affected counties since the summer.

But according to J.D. Spangler and other Clark County business owners, those meetings were nothing more than “a dog and pony show” to which the company brought armed security guards. Friday afternoon, Clark County landowner Laura Te Grotenhuis said as many as 10 off-duty and on-duty police officers were present at the company’s meetings she attended. Hundreds of residents were forced to wait outside for more than an hour as the meetings were conducted inside the town’s Harlan Hall, and only a few people could fit inside at one time, she said.

Spangler told the audience Wednesday that the power line project could cost him his radio station.

“If they end up taking the radio station away from me, I’ve had a great run. But I hope it doesn’t happen,” said the owner of WMMC-FM 105.9.

The proposed power lines would be about 96 feet from the radio station tower he built shortly after buying WMMC 15 years ago. Now in his 60s, Spangler said the last 42 years of his life have been in the radio business, and the chance to own his hometown station was one he jumped at. He sells radio ads for between $5 and $6 each, and he said it’s never been a profit-oriented business, more a labor of love. He proudly states he’s broadcast more than 1,200 high school sports contests over the years.

Far from being anti-progress, Spangler said he’s simply in disbelief that an out-of-state company can come into town and run him out of business. The proximity of the lines to his tower would ruin his transmission, rendering it with too much static, he told the audience. He pointed out the company could in fact bury the lines if it so chose.

Commission’s review process

But Leigh Morris, a spokesman for Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois, said Thursday that it will ultimately be the Illinois Commerce Commission’s decision where the lines would run, not the company’s.

“There’s a lot of confusion about that,” he said, noting company officials were not in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting in the church building.

Te Grotenhuis confirmed Friday that the company officials were not invited to the community group’s meeting, but that lack of invitation was simply an oversight. About a month old, Clark County’s Stop The Power Lines Coalition is still trying to fully understand the project’s scope. All of the group’s meetings are open to the public, and future events will include an invitation to representatives of Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois, she said.

Morris said that, as required by law, the company has hosted its own public information meetings in the affected counties, and has since filed with the commission both a primary and an alternate route. Public input received at the open houses has been taken into consideration, he said.

Morris said the Illinois Commerce Commission has 225 days to review the proposal and determine whether it is necessary and financially doable. That review process is expected to last through July 2013.

Then, if a route is approved, the company would begin negotiating the purchase of easements from affected landowners. The easements, Morris said, would be 150 feet. Landowners would still own the land, but would be prohibited from building in the easement or growing trees there. Existing trees in the right-of-way would be chopped down.

“Yes, we will clear the right-of-way where that’s necessary to do,” Morris said.

But that all hinges upon approval from the state.

Beth Bosch, spokeswoman for the Illinois Commerce Commission, said Friday that agency will continue its review process of the initial proposal, soliciting input from affected landowners and businesses. The agency has been receiving community comments through its website, www.icc.illinois.gov, all summer, she said.

And before a utility company can obtain the right of eminent domain and force owners to sell easements, it first must receive approval for the project itself, and then initiate a separate request for eminent domain. Ultimately, she said, the issue could wind up in court.

Pine tree plot at risk

Wednesday evening, 50-year-old Doug Dahnke said that clear-cutting would put him out of business — the tree business.

Dahnke’s Pine Patch has between 40,000 and 45,000 pine trees growing on the plot he and his family purchased 29 years ago, he said. When he purchased the plot with the help of family and friends, he’d lost his job and his wife had just given birth to a handicapped child. Family members began buying him small trees to plant, a few at a time, he said, explaining the three decades of work have culminated in “the best little Christmas tree farm on U.S. 40.”

Over the years, more than 400 people have worked the Christmas season at his farm, from stay-at-home moms to college students on break. His company now partners with area charities to distribute the trees regionally, he said.

But the proposed power line route would run through his plot, and a substantial number of his trees would be destroyed. Given the years it takes to grow a season’s worth of trees, he said, the move would put him out of business.

“It just hits me in the gut that just because somebody signs a piece of paper, they’re going to take it all away,” he said.

Dahnke, Spangler and others voiced frustration at what they described as an unnecessary intrusion. The company, they said, could opt to stack lines on top of the existing towers, or perhaps go underground.

Trimble said Friday that the local farm bureau opposes the development, but the state organization will most likely stay out of the fray. While he’s glad to see the company proposing the use of mono-poles, as opposed to those with a wider base, their decision to place them in the middle of fields is poor and right-of-ways along the roads should be used instead, he said.

The potential for damage to farmers’ business is very real, he added.

“I’m sure it will. You don’t stick a set of poles through a guy’s field and not create an impact,” he remarked.

It’s impossible to yet know exactly how many poles would be placed in Clark County, or any other county, given the distance and topography, he said.

But Te Grotenhuis estimated that up to 20 could be placed on her 1,000 acres of farm ground, given the approximate distance between each pole. Her ability to graze cattle and horses will be affected, she added.

Easement purchases

Morris said the 345,000-volt line is part of a “multi-valued project” which would increase the use of renewable energy, lower power costs to customers, and foster regional and local economic development. Illinois utility customers will pay a very small percentage of the project’s cost while realizing savings in their bills.

In announcements made earlier this summer, Morris explained that the project is part of MISO, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, which serves as a regional planning organization for the power grid in the Midwest. The entire transmission line to the East Coast is slated to be finished by 2019, with local work set to commence in about two years.  

“Construction is scheduled to begin April 2015,” he said, describing a fluid process in which many negotiations must first occur. Once a route is approved, every landowner must be notified and appraisals must be conducted. The purchase of easements would most likely involve both offers and counter-offers, he pointed out.

But Te Grotenhuis, a 16-year cancer survivor, said there’s no price she’s interested in accepting. The fight she said she’ll wage against this company is second only to her battle with cancer.

“Clark County will never be the same if this goes through,” she said, crying at the microphone at Wednesday night’s meeting.

The power lines would run just 500 feet from her house. The 55-year-old said about two miles of her farm would be touched by the lines. The power from those wires, she said, could electrify her fencing and other metal structures on the farm, as well as hinder other operations.

Health concerns related to the lines were voiced by numerous people at the meeting, amid signs on the wall which read “Leave Us Alone” and “Improve Existing Grid.” Te Grotenhuis said she too is deeply concerned about the impact of electromagnetic fields generated from the lines, both in terms of cancer and their perceived interference with pacemakers.

Ultimately, the feeling of powerless against the power company has her angry, but she said the community is rallying for a fight.

“This truly is David versus Goliath,” she said, adding the group is meeting weekly and plans to involve attorneys at some point.

The group hosts a website, www.stopthepower

lines.com, and is working with other groups in counties also affected by the potential development, she said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

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