The bell has just rung on the next round in the fight between Duke Energy and the Swain County residents living under its newest transmission lines and gargantuan metal towers.
Last week, the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission held a public hearing in Swain County to hear arguments from both sides on whether the power company was unreasonable when they erected 141-foot steel towers where once there were only 60-foot wooden poles.
“I’m sitting outside now, drinking my coffee, looking at the first tower that is about 100 feet from my front deck,” said Jennifer Simon, who is surrounded by the towers that dwarf her mobile home. “Four or five more towers are in my viewshed and the base of the closest tower is actually wider than my home.”
Simon is part of a grassroots group called Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley and Swain County, and they’ve been protesting the line and it’s companion substation since work started on them more than a year ago.
The group started out charging that Duke needed a permit from the utilities commission, along with public hearings, before proceeding with the new lines.
Duke claimed a permit wasn’t necessary, deeming the project a mere upgrade to existing lines, but residents called it a brand new project, since it put up 92 new towers, miles of new cable and upped the voltage running through them from 66 kv to 161 kv.
The citizens lost on that count. The Public Utilities Commission ruled in April that Duke was within its rights to change the line, moving within land they already had.
But now the issue is back, and the citizens — having conceded one loss — alleged that even if the power giant could put up the lines, they way they did it was out of line.
“I think generally their behavior in the process of doing this has been unreasonable,” said Paul Wolf. Wolf lives under a nest of towers. He can see 10, he says, from his front porch.
Wolf takes issue with where the towers were built, how the Duke’s contractors behaved and how the towers showed up in the first place.
His central complaint is against Duke’s contractors, who he said used his land as a bathroom.
“I’m personally outraged that these guys came and have been openly defecating on my land because they didn’t even bother to bring port-a-potties with them,” said Wolf.
That, plus the location of one tower next to his children’s play area and the fact that he said he was never notified — he came home to his neighborhood one afternoon to find towers going up before hearing the news from Duke — said Wolf, add up to the textbook definition of unreasonable.
The energy company, however, counters that it’s followed strict procedures for the project to make sure everything was above board.
“We had folks that actually made phone calls and personal visits and actually reached out to make contact to everyone who was along that route,” said Jason Walls, a spokesperson from Duke’s Charlotte office. As far as any contractor misdeeds, Walls said Duke dealt with them as they arose.
The dispute over the line and its components has been ongoing for nearly 16 months, starting with a protest from both the citizens group and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians over the location of a substation. Duke was planning to put it at a site overlooking the Kituwah mound, a location that’s central to Cherokee history and spirituality.
After some negotiating — and after the Swain County commissioners stepped in to block the move — the substation was moved elsewhere.
An official decision in Tuesday’s hearing probably won’t come down until the end of the year, said Sam Watson, general counsel for the Public Utilities Commission.
When the commission does, eventually, find for one side or the other, it’s not cut-and-dry what the result will be.
“The commission has a broad range of alternatives available to it, ranging from the relief requested by the complainants to nothing, as Duke has suggested is appropriate,” said Watson.
That means that Duke could, on one extreme, be forced to take down the entire line or move or modify towers or other equipment. Conversely, no action would force the citizens to live with the decisions Duke has made.
Either side can appeal the decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Jennifer Simon said she’s concerned that the three-hour hearing was nothing but a formality.
“I don’t know that there’s any options on the table,” said Simon. “I think that this hearing was truly just an exercise of formality. I don’t know that we’re really being presented with any options.”
One option, however, that affected homeowners do have before them is civil court.
Throughout these proceedings, Duke has maintained that that would be the right venue for a large chunk of the complaints against them. The Public Utilities Commission can’t make decisions on financial losses. So for those, like Wolf and Simon, who claim their property has been irreparably devalued by the 13-story towers, the civil court is where they need to go.
And several in the citizens group aren’t ruling it out, though they still hold out hope that the commission will get the towers off their land before they have to take it that far.
But beyond the questions of financial damage and reasonableness, some are also questioning the necessity of such massive quantities of power in a sparsely populated rural area. Duke’s service area stops at the state line, for now, so the power pulsing through the new line will serve Swain County, Cherokee and parts of Franklin.
Walls said that this upgrade is necessary to keep steady power flowing to the region, particularly to Cherokee, where a sizeable casino expansion is sure to draw a much larger electrical load.
“We truly believe that upgrading this line and doing so in the way that we are will serve this region with reliable electricity for years and decades to come,” said Walls.
Paul Wolf and his neighbors, though, still contend that, though the lines might be necessary, Duke’s behavior wasn’t. And vital or not, they’d like it moved somewhere else.
“The first day they installed the tower above my house I stopped and broke out laughing because I didn’t want to cry. It was just so hideous,” said Wolf. “Even if they have the right to do all this, did they treat me rightly and fairly as a landowner? No.”