CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state Supreme Court decided Wednesday not to interfere with plans to construct a high voltage power line across northern West Virginia despite arguments that the line would inflict environmental harm and higher utility rates on state residents.
The justices voted 4-1, without comment, to let stand last August's state Public Service Commission decision to endorse Allegheny Energy's Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL. Justice Margaret Workman voted to hear the case.
The Sierra Club and Manassas, Va., resident Thomas Hildebrand challenged the PSC's approval of the 500-kilovolt line between Pennsylvania and northern Virginia. The line would pass through Monongalia, Preston, Tucker, Grant, Hardy and Hampshire counties in West Virginia.
During a hearing Wednesday morning, Sierra Club lawyer William DePaulo said the court's ruling would "dictate energy and environmental policy in the state for decades to come."
The utility has said the line is needed to prevent blackouts, rolling blackouts and brownouts. PJM Interconnection, the organization responsible for the transmission grid for a 13-state area, has said reliable flow of electricity within the Mid-Atlantic region could not be guaranteed without it, and the line was needed by June 2011.
Hildebrand, who represented himself, told the court that West Virginians would be paying the price "so folks as far as New Jersey have cheaper power."
DePaulo said the PSC based its decision on outdated information and didn't consider the environmental damage caused by the continued reliance on coal to meet increased power needs. In light of potential new national laws involving coal's use, the cost to build and maintain the line also would cripple West Virginia businesses and consumers who would have to pay higher electric rates, he added.
The recession has reduced the need for power in the region and the increased capacity isn't needed by 2011, DePaulo said.
He cited this month's announcement by Allegheny Energy and American Electric Power to postpone a second proposed power line through West Virginia. An Allegheny spokesman said the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline, or PATH, was being delayed until 2014 because of a PJM analysis that showed a slowdown in electrical demand.
Philip Melick, a Charleston lawyer representing the power line developer, told the justices said the two power lines should not be confused.
"PJM continues to have the need for TrAIL inservice date to be June 2011," he said. The TrAIL line is designed to address current needs and there was nothing in the record that would show the line was bad for businesses or consumers, he said.
Last year, Allegheny Energy reached a deal with the PSC's Consumer Advocate Division and a coalition of large energy-consuming companies over the line's construction. The utility said it would give West Virginia customers a seven-year reprieve from costs associated with the line. The utility also said it would locate a transmission office in north-central West Virginia and create at least 100 jobs.
The PSC approved the line because it didn't want West Virginia customers to inconvenienced by brownouts or other problems caused by supply shortages, said commission lawyer Caryn Short.
"There is a need for action," she said. "The solution is the transmission line."