Jonita Colling-Holland says the electromagnetic energy that emits from the transmission line that crosses her property near Eckville is so intense it will light a fluorescent light in her hands.
The 29-year-old mother of two says that’s enough to worry her that the lines may pose a health risk to her 10-month-old daughter and four-year-old son.
“It scares me,” she says. “It’s difficult to prove an electromagnetic field is dangerous, but I am not willing to take that chance.”
Round 2 has begun on attempts to build a new 500,000-volt transmission line between Edmonton and Calgary and it’s already looking like the approval process could be as tumultuous as the last one, which ended up being declared a “mistrial.”
Colling-Holland attended an open house hosted by the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) in Eckville last week to find out more about the new plans, but she didn’t like what she heard.
“I guess ultimately I feel incredibly uneasy about this,” she said. “I feel that AESO is making an attempt to look better than they have in the past, but I feel it’s all on the surface. I hope that they see people won’t take this lying down and that we need a democratic process.”
AESO is holding 26 open houses in communities between Edmonton and Calgary to consult landowners and other members of the public about the project it claims is needed to deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity to the province.
The non-profit agency is consulting Albertans about technical and route options for a proposed transmission line that will cross private land to connect northern coal-fired plants with southern Alberta households.
So far, after eight hearings, there hasn’t exactly been an avalanche of public support for any of the options, according to Dick Way, AESO’s senior director of strategic projects.
“I can tell you, nobody we’ve run into yet seems to like any of them,” he said.
“There’s a general desire that, if at all possible, we shouldn’t do it. Nobody seems to like these towers. They are not very popular.”
Joe Anglin, a vocal opponent of the last attempt to approve the line, had hoped for a better outcome this time, but he says he’s disappointed with what he has seen at the open houses so far.
“I have caught a number of different AESO people giving out inaccurate information and misleading information,” said Anglin, a Rimbey resident who heads the Lavesta Area Group.
“What we want is a fair process.” His group is expected to stage a protest that includes displays of cancer-afflicted cattle at Monday’s hearing in Rimbey.
“We want to show people what these alternating current (AC) lines can do,” he said.
“We have letters from veterinarians that say that herds under power lines are experiencing a higher incidence of cancer than other herds not under power lines.”
While no one has definitive proof the transmission lines cause cancer in humans, “our argument is the precautionary principle should apply,” he says.
The new round of consultation was required after a spying scandal rocked the regulatory agency last year.
The now-defunct Energy and Utilities Board admitted hiring private investigators to eavesdrop on landowners who were opposed to the transmission lines.
The hearings were held behind closed doors and extra security was brought in after an elderly woman threw a punch at a board official. At the time, the premier and the energy minister supported the use of the private detectives, but a retired judge appointed by the province to review the matter branded the spying “repulsive.”
The board was overhauled, security officials dismissed, resignations of panel members were accepted and an interim chairman was brought in to oversee the splitting of the board into two entities – one responsible for electricity and one for the oilpatch.
This time, the Alberta Utilities Commission will hear the matter. Albertans have a chance to voice their views during a six-week consultation road.
Way said AESO is presenting four routes that run on both sides of the Edmonton to Calgary freeway and is looking at both AC and Direct Current (DC) options.
An overhead DC line would suffer less line loss and the single-pole tower would leave less of a footprint, but it’s more expensive than an AC line, he said.
The line could carry more capacity – 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts – than the existing six-line, 2,000-megawatt system. Direct current wasn’t an option in the last round of hearings because of cost, but advances in technology have brought the costs down, Way said.
A moderate-capacity AC line is expected to cost about $600 million while a high-capacity line or a DC line would be in the $1-billion range, he said.
The cost of the last major line built in the province was split evenly between power producers and customers, but the government of former premier Ralph Klein amended the rules to have consumers pay the full costs.
Jim Wachowich, lawyer and spokesman for the Alberta Consumers Coalition, says he worries Albertans could get stuck paying the full cost of a line that may be used commercially by power companies to export electricity out of the province for a profit.
“We want to make sure the north-south corridor is not a pre-build for an export line,” he said.
Way said AESO will take the feedback from Albertans and use it to recommend a route and technical option to the Alberta Public Utilities Commission.
He said public hearings wouldn’t likely begin before 2009 and the line probably wouldn’t be built until 2012.
The delay, caused by the spying scandal and subsequent declaration of a mistrial at the previous hearings, makes the situation “relatively urgent,” Way said.
“We’ve slipped below our reliability criteria, but we’re keen not to short-cut the regulatory process,” he said. “If we had our druthers, we would have a little more capacity on the system while we go through all these processes, but we want to make sure we’re really ready to do the best we can.”
Darcy Henton, Canwest News Service
16 June 2008