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    Categories: Provincial News

AUC opens up Heartland debate

Thousands of Edmonton and Sturgeon County residents can now speak at a future Heartland power line hearing thanks to a provincial board’s new rules.

Epcor and AltaLink want to build a 500-kilovolt double-circuit power line — known as the Heartland Transmission Project — through Sturgeon County. The line is meant to pipe power from the Wabamun region to the industrial heartland.

Proponents have settled on two possible alignments for the line, said project spokesperson Tim le Riche: one along the east edge of Edmonton and one that goes up and around Morinville. They plan to send an application to the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) soon, which would lead to a public hearing in the spring.

The commission announced last week that it had changed the rules used to determine who has legal standing at that hearing. Normally, said AUC spokesperson Jim Law, people would have to wait until after the hearing had been announced before finding out if they’d have the right to speak at it. Now, the commission has given blanket authorization to everyone within 800 metres of the line, no matter what route it takes.

This is a major development, said Bruce Johnson, president of Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans, the lead opponent of the power line because it gives roughly 5,000 households that live near the routes the right to speak at the hearing. “This is a pretty bold statement by the AUC.”

Process improved

The commission will also let people pre-register for the hearing and specify how they want to participate. Interveners will be able to submit a written statement, meet with the commissioners or call witnesses during the hearing.

The commission will also hold information sessions to help people understand the hearing process, Law said. “Given the scale of the Heartland project, the commission wanted to provide opportunities for meaningful participation as early as possible.”

These are positive steps for the commission, said Cindy Chiasson, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton. AUC hearings can be intimidating to many because they resemble court proceedings and delve into deep technical manners. These changes will give people more time to understand what they’re getting into.

The changes also acknowledge the huge level of interest in these power lines, Chiasson said; past rallies in opposition to its construction have drawn about 3,500 people. The commission still has the ghost of its last major power line hearing hanging over it — the one where the former Energy and Utilities Board spied on speakers — she said, and these changes could help restore the public’s trust.

Sturgeon County Coun. Karen Shaw said she planned to pre-register for the hearing in the near future as both line routes pass through her division.

The AUC took an important step in giving standing to those close to the line, she said. “You’re playing in a field that’s totally unknown to most people. Joe Citizen is battling a multinational corporation.”

This advance notice gives people the time to hire lawyers and experts. She criticized the commission for not reviewing its policy on legal costs. Citizens need to have a level playing field with companies, she said, but most can’t afford to match a company’s expertise.

The commission should ask companies to cover the full legal costs of citizen opponents, she argued. “Their experts have to be equal to the corporation’s experts. The funding has to be equal and it’s not.”

The Heartland power line is expected to go before the AUC this spring. For more on the new rules, see www.auc.ab.ca.

HEARTLAND OPEN HOUSE

The Heartland Transmission Project team is holding two open houses this week on a 500-kV power line which, if built, will pass through Sturgeon County.
o Jan. 27 at the Bon Accord Community Hall, 4931-50 Ave., Bon Accord
o Jan. 28 at St. Jean Baptiste Parish Hall, 10010-101 Ave., Morinville
The open houses run from 3 to 8 p.m.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.