Ambiguity surrounding Grain Belt Express fuels opposition, skepticism across Missouri

Commissioners in five of the eight counties along Clean Line’s proposed route have rescinded support for the Grain Belt Express.
David Freyermuth / Graphic Designer

Opposition to the Grain Belt Express Clean Line, a proposed high-voltage direct-current power line, continues to grow as Clean Line, the Houston-based energy firm behind the project, filed an application for a certificate of convenience and necessity March 26.

Along with its application, Clean Line released the proposed route for the direct current transmission line that would extend 206 miles across eight Missouri counties.

Change of heart

In July 2012, the Chariton County commissioners granted Clean Line authority to construct, own and maintain the transmission line and all associated structures near county-maintained roads and highways, according to a document signed by commissioners Tony McCollum, Gary Clark and Steve Atkinson.

However, the Chariton County commissioners signed a letter March 31, 2014, stating their changed perspective on the project.

“After further review of this company, we feel that we were premature in our support,” the letter said. “Many of our citizens are opposed to this line going through our county.”

Chariton County Clerk Susan Littleton explained that the commissioners have rescinded their support for the project after speaking with opposition groups like Block Grain Belt Express, whose online petition collected more than 1,300 signatures as of April 15.

“(The commissioners) had thought it was good for the county because of the tax revenue,” Littleton said. “And then when Block Grain Belt Express got together, the counties around us were re-evaluating as well, and have decided not to support either side and stay neutral.”

Littleton also said the Chariton County commissioners would support the project, however, if the Missouri Public Service Commission approves Clean Line’s application. She added that the commissioners declined to comment further on the project at this time.

But the Chariton County commissioners are not the only ones who have rescinded their support for the project.

Since the route was made public, commissioners in four other counties — Clinton, Caldwell, Monroe and Ralls — have also rescinded their support for the project, Block Grain Belt Express spokeswoman Jennifer Gatrel said.

Gatrel also said the commissioners in Carroll and Randolph counties are still in support of the project. The commissioners were unavailable for comment.

On the fence

The Buchanan County commissioners, however, have yet to decide whether to rescind their support or not.

“We’re still gathering a lot of information on the pros and cons to determine what the public wants us to do,” Buchanan county commissioner Ron Hook said. “It’s certainly going to be an important economic development for the county … but we’re also trying to find out what the stance of our constituents are.”

Because of the large number of opponents who have contacted the commissioners, Hook anticipates a decision will be made soon.

“We’ve had more contacts from people against the project than for it by a large margin … of 90 percent against and 10 percent for (the project,)” Hook said. “I think we’ll reach a decision real soon, and right now, I’m leaning toward being against the project. If my constituents don’t want it, I’m going to stand behind them.”

Hook also said the growing number of opponents may be attributed to the ambiguity regarding certain aspects of the project, such as the potential risks.

“It’s such a large line and I don’t think there’s anything in the U.S. that large,” Hook said. “So we don’t know what the ramifications are, and I think that’s why so many people are against it.”

Potential health risks

For many of the opponents, including MU senior Caroline Lowenstein of Cameron, Mo. in Clinton County, the potential health risks of living near a high-voltage DC power line is one of many grave concerns for the project.

“There have been studies done that show (the power lines) are linked with childhood leukemia,” Lowenstein said. “On our farm, we have two of my nieces and a nephew, with two more on the way. So it’s really scary to think about the health risks.”

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, research has repeatedly found a possible link between exposure to electric and magnetic fields (EMF) radiation and childhood leukemia to be weak.

Nonetheless, the Environmental Protection Agency identifies power lines as a major source of EMF radiation. The agency also recommends that those concerned with potential health risks should distance themselves from the source as much as possible.

Amy Harvey, whose Polo, Mo. residence lies along the proposed route, said the potential health risks alone would prompt her to move away should the line be constructed.

“Oh, we’ll have to move,” Harvey said. “(The line) would cut straight through my backyard … I don’t want to live just 200 feet away from a huge EMF machine.”

Larry Pollard, a supporter for the project in Chariton County, said he believes there have not been enough studies conducted on the potential health risks to say that the potential harms outweigh the environmental benefits.

“I’m a no-carbon man, and I think wind energy is going to be a very important component down the road of reducing carbon use,” Pollard said. “I have read studies and I don’t buy into the health problems … I believe there haven’t been enough studies done that is proper.”

Missouri’s connection

Others, including MU senior Alec Fodge from Paris in Monroe County, Mo., are skeptical of Clean Line’s promise to bring clean energy to Missouri.

Fodge said because the transmission line is DC-operated, a converter station — which currently does not exist in Missouri — is needed to convert the energy for the alternating current power grid.

“Any sort of conversion station is very expensive, and there are no guarantees that (Clean Line) will construct one in Missouri,” he said.

However, Clean Line’s Director of Development Mark Lawlor said in an email that the project would include a converter station in Ralls County.

“We have a queue position with (the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator) to study 500 megawatts of delivery file under J-255 in the interconnection queue,” Lawlor said in the email. “In addition, we have an option to purchase a parcel of ground in Ralls County for the converter station … Further, our application to the PSC clearly and specifically describes the project and the interconnection in Missouri.”

Fodge said he is passing his own petition against the project around campus, and has collected 70 signatures as of April 13.

Thinking of alternatives

In addition, Fodge added that he is also concerned for the loss of farmland and property value, as well as potential environmental degradation that may result from the transmission line cutting through forests, pastures and farms.

Burying the cable instead of installing an overhead power line, Fodge said, would help put his concerns to rest.

“I’m not opposed to bringing clean energy toward the east coast and the central states,” he said. “If the lines were buried and (Clean Line) were to build substations that would allow Missouri access to this cheaper clean energy, and if there was a guarantee of Missouri access to the energy, I would probably be in favor of this energy.”

Due to the magnitude of the project, however, Lawlor stated that burying the line might not be a feasible option.

Companies like ABB have developed underground DC power lines such as the HVDC Light, which is capable of transporting 1,100 megawatts of energy at 300 kilovolts.

An example of a project using HVDC Light is the Murraylink in South Australia, which consists of two 180-kilometer lines, each transporting 200 megawatts at 150 kilovolts.

Clean Line projects that its transmission line will transport up to 3,500 megawatts of energy at 500 kilovolts.

Disrupting agriculture

Junior Alex Templeton, whose family operates 1,500-2,000 acres of farmland in Polo, Mo. in Caldwell County, said an overhead line like this could interfere with the livelihood of Missouri farmers.

Templeton said her farm, for example, uses terrace farming and sprayer booms that extend more than 100 feet to spray crops.

“When you’re going over those hills, the booms could go up and down and get into the power lines,” she said. “That would really affect our farming practices … land that you cannot spray well and can’t plant crops on well means money not made.”

Rights of property owners

Templeton also said she is strongly opposed to a private company receiving eminent domain status, which might be used for construction of the line.

“Eminent domain for private use is just wrong,” she said. “Once they get the easements, more structures can be added onto those easements without landowners’ approval. They can do whatever they want in that easement and access it from wherever they want.”

The Missouri Landowners Alliance, led by Don Lowenstein, is an organization that seeks to legally intervene Clean Line’s application to receive public utility status.

“The bottom line is this: People don’t like the concept of eminent domain, and we don’t think it’s right that a private company would even try to take farmland away from us,” he said. “We work hard and produce on our farms … for many people, building a life in the county is not for sale; it’s a lifestyle that we’ve built.”

Paul Agathen, a former attorney for Ameren, is currently representing the organization pro bono. The alliance filed a motion to intervene April 9.

In order to hire additional attorneys and expert witnesses for a testimony against Clean Line’s application, the alliance is hoping to raise $100,000 by the end of April, Don Lowenstein said.

Since March 1, the alliance had raised over $60,000 and attracted over 350 supporters.

Despite the alliance’s campaign, Lawlor said he believes the project serves enough of a public need to be approved by the PSC.

“If we thought it was something that would not be beneficial to the state, we would not spend the time and effort to do such a project,” Lawlor said.

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