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Power line has powerful delegation feeling powerless

Whether Duke Energy ultimately wins approval to build a 45-mile transmission line through Henderson County, it is becoming clear that local politicians are increasingly frustrated at their lack of power to influence the outcome.

Henderson County Commissioner Grady Hawkins expressed that two weeks ago when he said the commissioners had been cast into a gunfight with no bullets.

Even state Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. Chuck McGrady, two of the most powerful representatives in the Legislature say they have limited influence in the decision-making process.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since the building height fight,” Apodaca said, referring to a battle that resulted in a city referendum defeating a proposed high-rise condo development in downtown Hendersonville.

Like McGrady and state Rep. Chris Whitmire, Apodaca said he’s heard plenty about the power line.

“I’ve been in touch with Duke six times,” he said Monday. “We’re working on it. Our attorneys are working on it. And the sad news is we’re coming up empty.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission has the power to approve, deny or alter Duke’s plans. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the authority, too, because the transmission line crosses state lines.

Apodaca said he has urged Duke to look at using existing power line right of way for the bigger transmission towers. He and McGrady both said they think the utility should consider crossing the Green River Gamelands, even though crossing public land is something utilities have historically avoided.

As for burying the line, “That’s something I’ve asked over and over,” he said. “They say it causes far more problems after it’s buried. They’re just adamant that burying it is not an option.”

Many opponents are questioning Duke’s analysis showing that Western North Carolina will need extra power from the South Carolina grid.

“It always was intended to go both ways,” Apodaca said, meaning there could be times when the Lake Julian plant supplements the power generated in South Carolina. “But I do say we need the gas plant (to replace the coal plant at Lake Julian) without a doubt.”

A big manufacturing plant expansion “is depending on the plant for electricity,” he said. “We’ve been involved with this. The plant’s already here. Matter of fact they’ve asked for a letter from me” ensuring the new capacity will come.

As one of the top three budget negotiators in the House, McGrady went into this year’s legislative session expecting to be bombarded with questions and demands on spending. That was before the power line.

“Every discussion I’m having now with constituents has to do with the transmission line,” he said. “Anywhere, any discussion of any type sort of goes back to that. I was out walking my dog and I had three people following me.”

McGrady said he has encouraged Duke officials and the Utilities Commission to carefully review comments from Henderson County residents.

“I was told Monday that they will have hearings (in Henderson County) and if they decide not to do that I suspect their legislators would quickly move to change that opinion,” McGrady said.

Rep. Chris Whitmire, who represents southern Henderson County and Polk County, said he’s been trying to “empower” constituents by guiding them to the proper channels to comment through Duke Energy and the N.C. Utilities Commission.

“Our biggest say is are they following what the Utilities Commission requires and part of that is reviewing the input that people have been very eager to provide them,” Whitmire said. “I do think to the extent they can they will use existing right of way.”