Critics pan VELCO upgrade at Brandon hearing


BRANDON - The second of three public hearings on a proposed upgrade of power lines across northwestern Vermont elicited more opposition and questioning of the plan than support for it.

Around 40 residents from Addison and Rutland counties attended the Monday hearing at Otter Valley Union High School for the Vermont Electric Co.'s (VELCO) Northwest Reliability Project, a plan that calls for the upgrade of transmission lines from West Rutland to South Burlington.

The hearing is required by law before the Public Service Board awards a "certificate of public good" to VELCO to proceed with the upgrade.

The three-person PSB panel took testimony from area residents in opposition as well as business leaders in favor of the proposal.

Tom Dunn, project manager for VELCO, outlined the project in a brief presentation before witnesses gave their testimony to PSB.

VELCO says increased demand for energy in northwestern Vermont - a region encompassing Addison, Chittenden and Rutland counties - has made the current transmission system unreliable. At Monday's hearing Dunn cited the recent blackout in the Midwest and East Coast as a key reason to improve the integrity of the grid.

While some witnesses voiced support for the plan, many others questioned the implications of the upgrade on health and property values, or expressed strong opposition to the project's stated benefits to ratepayers and the integrity of the electric grid in northwestern Vermont.

There are two components of VELCO's proposed upgrade: First, the company wants to build new 79-foot towers that would run next to - not in place of - existing towers between West Rutland and New Haven. The new towers would carry 345 kilovolts (kV) of electricity, three times the capacity of the current lines, and would be 27 feet taller than the existing 52-foot towers.

Second, VELCO wants to replace 27 miles of 46kV and 34.5 kV line from New Haven to South Burlington - through the Vergennes area, Charlotte and Shelburne - with a new 115 kV line. These towers would be 61 feet tall, roughly 25 feet higher than the existing ones.

The cost of the upgrade is tagged at $128 million, about $12 million of which would be paid by Vermont ratepayers. Under policy enacted by the New England independent systems operator (ISO), a regional body that sets wholesale electricity prices, remaining costs for the upgrade must be spread across the five other New England states through a tariff on electricity bills.

That policy, which experts call "socialization," has drawn criticism from regulators in Maine, who have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to change the system so that costs for upgrade projects are allotted solely to the ratepayers who will most benefit from the upgrade.

Maine's appeal was prompted by a plan to upgrade transmission lines in southwestern Connecticut, which, along with northwestern Vermont, has been defined by ISO as one of the weak points in the New England grid.

Socialization and Maine's appeal to FERC were alluded to by witnesses at Monday's hearing.

"Ratepayers don't want to pay to turn Vermont into an electrical highway," said Judy Kowalczyk, a Middlebury resident and one of around 15 people who gave testimony to the PSB panel. "Why are we considering a project that sends money out of the state?"

Ed Fagan, another Middlebury resident, said he was suspicious of the project.

"(One of my) concerns is the concealment of (VELCO's) justification," Fagan said. "It's very fuzzy."

James Lathrop, president of Claire Lathrop Bandmill Inc. in Bristol, said that VELCO's proposed upgrade would affect his business.

"You want to take 100 feet of my timberland," he said. "I take exception to that."

Not all of the opinions voiced at Monday's hearing were against the VELCO upgrade.

Tom Donahue, vice-president of the Rutland Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted that his organization viewed the upgrade as a "safe and cost-effective distribution of energy.""(The project) is an important form of job-creation," he added.

Jamie Stewart, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp., explained that he and others in his organization were in favor of the project.

"We, as a part of that system, need to upgrade," he said.

The Rutland Regional Chamber of Commerce is part of an 18-member business and trade group called the Coalition for Reliable Power, which on Tuesday gathered in Burlington to express their support for the VELCO upgrade.

Most of the witnesses at Monday's hearing, however, were skeptical of the project.

The witnesses repeated concerns that form what has become a common refrain in the debate on whether to upgrade transmission lines from West Rutland to South Burlington.

Among those concerns were questions about the health effects of power lines and alternatives to the upgrade.

"I'm a pediatrician," explained one witness, a resident of North Ferrisburgh who said she lives 600 feet away from where new power lines would be built under the VELCO proposal. "This project is not cautious; it needs to be considered very seriously."

Witnesses, as well as state and VELCO officials, cited a 1999 report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that found "no consistent pattern of biological effects" from exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF).

The PSB panel said it would take the data on power lines and potential human health effects into consideration in its decision on whether to approve the VELCO upgrade.

Another witness asked Dunn whether VELCO might bury transmission lines underground. Dunn indicated that the company was considering burying the lines in Charlotte and Shelburne, towns whose residents have been vocal opponents of the proposed upgrade.