The Energize Eastside debate is in Renton, as city Hearing Examiner Phil Olbrechts has 20 days to look over thousands of pages of documents from the applicant,Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and opponents, including group Coalition of Eastside Neighborhoods for Sustainable Energy (CENSE).
“I never thought power lines could be so interesting to me, but they were, and it raises some really important issues,” Olbrechts said at the end of a five-hour public hearing on the project on Jan. 8.
The project increases energy for Eastside cities via removing 144 wooden poles with 115 kilohertz (kHz) lines, to 41 steel poles with 230 kHz lines in the Renton portion. The poles will be taller than the current line, and will require removal of trees, which PSE has stated it intends to replace over 1:1. The project uses the four miles of line in Renton, with pole heights between 70 feet to 100 feet. The project also adds a new substation in south Bellevue to add more power capacity. Right now PSE has only applied for the portions of the project in south Bellevue, Newcastle and Renton.
PSE submitted a complete application for the city’s part of the project in March 2018 (Originally PSE submitted an application earlier that year, but it was considered “incomplete” by city staff as the Final Environmental Impact Statement was not yet complete.) Renton then put the proposal on hold in June 2018 so a city-selected consultant could do a “consistency analysis,” reviewing the project proposal compared to the FEIS.
City staff and PSE updated Renton City Council on the status of the project at the August 5 Committee of the Whole meeting. During the presentation, staff said they “are not always on the same page” with PSE and it had “taken some time” to work through the application together.
The city then resumed the application, a year and a half later, in November 2019, with eight conditions of approval. Staff at the meeting said they were most concerned with tree removal and visual impacts of the polls in Renton. To mitigate, staff recommend poles be treated with art wraps.
The Energize Eastside project went through four days of debate in front of the Bellevue hearing examiner in spring 2019, and then faced Bellevue City Council in fall 2019, when CENSE and other groups appealed the hearing examiner’s approval. The city of Bellevue agreed with the hearing examiners decision, as reported by Blake Peterson in Bellevue Reporter. CENSE then brought Bellevue council’s decision to King County Superior Court in late December.
On Jan. 8, Olbrechts listened to close to five hours of testimony for and against the project. City staff, CENSE, PSE, local businesses, hospitals and Renton residents spoke at the meeting. The city also received over 72 written comments about the proposal, and more continued to come in via email during the hearing.
Local Renton businesses testified at the hearing in favor of Energize Eastside, most stating the importance of consistent power for a fast growing Renton and that power is essential for emergency operations. Seven health care institutions (including Kaiser Permanente and UW Valley Medical Center) testified in a written letter of support, a joining that they said was “unprecedented,” as well as Vulcan Incorporated (representing Seahawks and First & Goal), PACCAR, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, Renton Technical College (RTC), Republic Services and the Renton Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
SECO of Southport Towers provided verbal testimony in support, but also stated in written testimony concerns that PSE’s application did not analyze if Energize Eastside results in adequate future power supply for Renton. SECO believed Renton should “benefit like Bellevue is benefiting from this major project,” according to written testimony at the city of Renton’s website.
Opponents testified to the hearing examiner that they were concerned about lack of evidence for needing more electricity, lack of considered “green” alternatives, lack of an estimate of the cost, safety of radiation and proximity to the Olympic pipelines and questioned the projects environmental review process.
Hearing testimony and rebuttal
A main argument that opponents including CENSE has brought against Energize Eastside is the lack of data showing that energy needs have increased on the Eastside. While population and job growth is obvious, conservation efforts may have made energy not follow the same trend, CENSE argues.
Olbrechts asked PSE after public comment where the data on past energy use was. PSE Legal Counsel Erin Anderson said PSE has to evaluate need by projecting into the future, not looking at the past. She also said the company is subject to audit from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) of what data is used for projections. When Olbrechts asked again if past usage trends were being withheld, counsel said they “disagreed with that” and offered to send him a transcript of the Bellevue proceedings where this was discussed at length, but not past usage data.
“It’s frustrating for us, we just want to know what the facts are, and PSE keeps hiding the ball,” CENSE President Don Marsh said at the hearing regarding the data.
Commenters also said that PSE failed to consider green or environmentally friendly alternatives to its energy systems, by continuing to use oil and natural gas. The project also has no set budget estimate, which commenters in opposition said worried them about the long-term cost to billpayers. Renton Planning Manager Jill Ding said the city’s municipal code does not require project need, cost, alternatives or demand to be evaluated. Ding also said alternatives, including grounding the power lines, were not considered under “mitigation” due to the high cost burden it would create for Renton ratepayers.
PSE also responded to concerns on alternatives, and said that the project moves bulk power, no matter what source it comes from. PSE also said undergrounding is highly expensive and difficult with 230 kHz lines and requires additional federal tariffs.
Others also were sad to see the lost of mature evergreens, which PSE intends to replace.
Others are concerned about the “radiation” from stronger power lines and the electromagnetic fields (EMF). One commenter said they’ve considered not letting their child attend Renton Technical College as it sits under the power line corridor.
Studies connecting exposure to EMF and health risks have been inconclusive, according to both the Environmental Protection Agency and The National Cancer Institute. The project also reduces the number of power poles on RTC’s campus from 16 poles to four, and a representative from the college spoke at the hearing in favor of Energize Eastside. PSE legal counsel also stated in it’s response to public comment that no change in EMF is expected, and the lines were designed to mitigate EMF.
Renton also receives the smallest portion of the area where these power lines increase electricity, commenters said, but has the longest section of the power line corridor and faces “disproportionate risks.”
“Renton is not getting something new,” Anderson, PSE legal counsel, said. “The existing character of the utility corridor, the homes, institutions and business built up around it remain the same.”
In another safety concern, two of the proposed steel poles in Renton will run along the underground pipeline from Olympic Pipeline Company, that pushes gas (more of that proximity occurs in Newcastle and Bellevue). There is also sections where the lines will cross Seattle City Light utility poles, but PSE said it is designed to comply with safety code compliance. PSE also brought forward different technical experts to discuss safety mitigation measures and has to create a safety plan with Olympic for the project.
Renton staff, during its chance for rebuttal, said that the city’s independent consistency analysis addressed issues like safety and was a “bridge” between Renton’s project impacts and the overall Energize Eastside environmental impact statement. Staff also noted PSE will need to go through other project approval processes the city has no jurisdiction over.
Most residents and CENSE members in opposition said they were concerned the Renton conditional use permit application had an environmental review for the entire length of the new power lines, even though the application only proposes the south half of the project. Some argued the proposal for only half the project requires a separate environmental review.
Hearing Examiner Olbrechts said he was concerned from hearing this public testimony, that the PSE application might be using an environmental review for a different proposal, which is not allowed. PSE legal counsel responded to this concern and said the environmental impact statement looks at “all impacts” including disclosing “construction phasing.” This project being a phase is one construction phase, and “some conversation” in the environmental review on the phases standing on their own, they said.
“PSE needs to build (the entire project) in order to address federal reliability criteria,” Legal Counsel for PSE Erin Anderson said. “These linear projects are problematic but city’s are experienced and savvy at handling them, we bring forth what we have for the city today.”
At the end of the hearing, Olbrechts said that he hopes if the project did stop at one phase, the environmental review accounts for that. He said he would be looking closely for that when reviewing, since it is possible.
“One of the persons who testified said I really need to dig deep, I need to remind you I can only dig deep with the documents in the record, and I will. This is the kind of thing I love to do and have been doing for a long time. I will be looking over everything that’s been put into the record and the issues. The big question is: what’s relevant to this proceeding? A conditional use permit application is focused on mitigating impacts to a community, so of course pipeline safety, aesthetics, health effects of radiation is all definitely within the purview. (But) the issue of need is more of a policy decision,” Olbrechts said as he concluded the hearing.
“I have a science degree I rarely get to use as an attorney so I love to have these cases. My decisions are very detailed— you’ll see I’ll be addressing all the concerns and issues raised today.”
Land use files on this application, including all comments, recording of the meeting and the future decision of the hearing examiner will be available at rentonwa.gov. Also, you can learn more about Energize Eastside at energizeeastside.com and the opponents of the project, CENSE at cense.org/renton-hearing.