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Public outcry pushes Duke to consider new substation site

Duke Energy wants an option to buy land at the Swain County Industrial Park with the intention of using it as the alternate site for an electrical substation, which was originally slated for the Ela area.

According to Jason Walls, Duke’s spokesperson, the company has offered to pay the county $15,000 to reserve an option to buy the 13-acre site of the proposed Swain County IT building at a price of $400,000. The option would give Duke six months to consider whether to follow through with the purchase.

In addition to the $400,000 price tag, Duke Energy would give the county $1.1 million in community development grant money to help with the cost of relocating the IT building, which has been in the development stages for nearly a decade.

“It’s part of our commitment to continue to work towards an alternate site,” Walls said. “We haven’t settled on an alternate site, but we continue to examine a few sites very closely.”

Duke has been in negotiations with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Swain County over relocating the substation after both entities voiced their disapproval of the current site.

The substation project is part of a massive upgrade of Duke’s West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with a 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers and constructing new substation facilities to accommodate the increased amount of power.

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Duke began work on a substation on a hill near the Kituwah mound in the picturesque valley of Ela between Cherokee and Bryson City in November 2009, but this March, Swain County imposed a moratorium that halted the project after both the EBCI and a citizens group opposed it. Protests by citizens are also playing out before the state utility commission.

Should Duke follow through with the purchase of the land and the relocation of the substation, it would signal a monumental compromise between the energy company, the tribe and the county over a sensitive cultural preservation issue.

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