(09/28/2009)
OP-ED: Bill Lepp and Scott Williams

www.wvgazette.com

American Electric Power wants to build a power line from the John Amos power plant in Kanawha county all the way to New Jersey. The purpose of this line is to supply electricity to the East Coast.

About 224 miles of the power line, known as PATH, will cut through 13 West Virginia counties. AEP will earn a bundle on the deal. The East Coast will get the power, and West Virginians will get the bill.

Though many aspects of the PATH project are bothersome, the notion of cutting a swath 224 miles long and 200 feet wide through our forests in order to install an extension cord for the East Coast is one of the hardest to swallow.

Crews with chain saws, bulldozers, chippers and saw equipped helicopters will rip a trail through our woods, over our mountains and across our neighbors' properties, then build hulking towers to supply electricity to a far-off portion of the country which, quite frankly, could make a more concerted effort to reduce their power usage and thus assuage the need to devastate West Virginia's landscape.

To sustain the PATH, helicopters will have to come back periodically to cut the woods back, and to spray weed killer and defoliants. The people of New Jersey won't be ingesting those chemicals through their food and water supply. We West Virginians will be eating that crap. Again.

The justification AEP offers is that the people on the Eastern seaboard need our power.

What the people of the Eastern seaboard need to do is turn off a couple of lights. By allowing PATH to originate and pass through West Virginia, we are simply enabling other people to continue to practice poor power conservation.

On PATH's Web site, pathtransmission.com, there is a Washington Post piece which states "There is a strong national interest in expanding the [electricity] transmission grid to handle increased demand for electricity and to collect it from different sources. If the promise of renewable energy is to be fulfilled, the national interest must prevail."

It suggests that the only cure for increased power use is the production of more power. This is akin to suggesting that what an alcoholic really needs is more to drink.

Wouldn't it be more in the national interest to encourage citizens to use less power, instead of continuing to feed the disease? What the author of the Post argument is pointedly suggesting by stating "... the national interest must prevail," is that the citizens of West Virginia need to hush-up and accept the fact that their land, homes and forests need to be irrevocably marred because the Eastern seaboard can't be bothered to restrain its thirst for electricity.

Let's not sit quietly by.

If the Eastern seaboard needs electricity, let it build its own power plant. We'll ship the coal. The scars from strip mining and valley fills will never go away, but PATH does not yet exist. We can prevent the new scar.

Do we really want to be the generator for the East Coast?

Do we want to go down in the history of the state as Generation Generator? What West Virginia is destined to become, if we continue to placate the power and coal industry, is the dirty, untended backyard of the East Coast. We will be a place they can ignore and pretend doesn't exist, so long as they get our power.

Why would Gov. Manchin and Public Service Commission Executive Secretary Sandra Squire support and allow this project?

One justification is that PATH will create jobs. Someone will have to cut down all the trees along 224 miles, construct towers and string the wires.

AEP is not a West Virginia-based company, and PATH is slated to pass through several other states. The jobs created for the construction of PATH may well go to non-West Virginia contractors and employees.

And even if West Virginians do secure these jobs, they are not sustainable jobs. When the construction is finished, the jobs will disappear, but the unsightly, annoying and useless-to-West Virginians PATH will loom upon our landscape in perpetuity.

Unless the government of West Virginia is guaranteed by AEP that PATH will create long-lasting, well paying jobs - with industry-standard benefits - to a significant number of West Virginia workers, then the PATH for Jobs justification fails.

Building PATH and permanently scarring the landscape of West Virginia is not worth a few short-lived jobs.

Gov. Manchin's slogan "Open for Business" is his message to the world. The point behind this offer is to create jobs and economic growth, presumably to keep West Virginia workers from leaving, to get former West Virginians to return to the state and to entice workers from other states to relocate here.

PATH does not fit this model.

It will not produce significant jobs and much of the profit will go out of state. Furthermore, the 224-mile eyesore will strip some West Virginia landowners of their property through eminent domain.

What property is left to them will be of lower value because of the presence or proximity of PATH. Who will want to move into a state in which the government allows private land to be taken for the benefit of citizens two or three states away?

Economic development, population growth and industrialization don't need to be the only standards by which a successful state is judged. We don't need growth and more industrialization if they come at the expense of our natural environment.

Part of the mystique and the appeal of West Virginia is that we are still a largely rural, wild place in the midst of ever encroaching subdivisions and strip malls.

What would take real courage is for us, as a state, to say, "We're done building. We've got all we need. And we're not surrendering any more to you."

West Virginians need to look for ways other than coal mining and the production of electric power for our livelihoods.

Clearly we cannot survive as a state if we don't have some income and produce some jobs. But why not focus more heavily on things such as the giant patch of land in Fayette County that was just purchased by the Boy Scouts of America?

Some development will have to occur on that land, but, by and large, that land will remain in its present natural state for decades to come, while continuing to provided jobs and economic income for the region through tourism.

The resistance to PATH is not an issue just for environmentalists and liberals who want to keep the oceans from rising.

Remember your father telling you turn off the lights when you left the room? Your father wasn't a raging environmentalist trying to save the icecaps. He just wanted a smaller power bill. Instead of building a 224-mile power line, how about we just send Dad to New Jersey?

It would be cheaper, have less of an environmental impact, and, if we paid him, it would create a job.

- Lepp is an author and storyteller. Williams, of Kingwood, is an adjunct professor of ethics at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania.

www.wvgazette.com


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