For Connecticut Light & Power, getting approval to build a new substation in Westport has been a breeze, with both the town and state agreeing it's needed and won't pose an environmental risk.
Three residents of Westport's Greens Farms neighborhood, where the substation will be built, vigorously disagree, and hope to generate enough public opposition that, even this late in the approval process, they can convince CL&P to put it elsewhere or not build it at all.
"I think what's been missing from the whole process is the public opinion," says Turkey Hill Road South resident Jennifer Boyd. "If we achieve nothing else than getting the public informed and understanding what the concerns are, I think that's a laudable goal in itself."
Joining Boyd in her home a week ago Sunday was her neighbor from across the street and fellow substation opponent James B. Weil, who says the approval process enables the power company to make installations where it's easiest and least expensive, regardless of the health consequences.
"It's all CL&P-centric," Weil says, adding he'll be able to see the substation's "towers" from his home.
After approval from a local municipality, the state's Siting Council holds jurisdiction over locating power facilities and transmission lines, hazardous waste facilities, and other forms of infrastructure, including telecommunications sites (e.g., cell telephone towers).
Boyd says there was no one formally assigned to represent the public at the March 31 hearing the Siting Council held in Westport's Town Hall.
"There's nobody who can intervene in this process on our behalf," Boyd says. There's no role for it, it's not welcomed, they've created a process that circumvents the public intentionally."
Her neighbor from a few doors away, Jim Burke, joined his fellow opponents Sunday, saying they had found alternate locations for the substation, and CL&P never addressed why they would or would not work.
One site, Burke says, is an existing substation for Metro-North Railroad with two homes next to it.
"The homeowners reached out and said they would sell them if CL&P wanted their property," Burke says.
CL&P plans to build the substation at 6 New Creek Road, which is a residential property with a single-family house that would be demolished. The property sits across from the Green's Farms railroad station and is close to the campus of Greens Farms Academy, a K-12 independent day school with 650 students, according to its website.
The utility company told the state's Siting Council it investigated six locations in Westport along the right-of-way of an existing 115,000-volt transmission line and rejected five of them for various reasons.
The Approval Process
Boyd, Weil and Burke are particularly perturbed that they first learned of the proposed substation when CL&P put up a sign on the property announcing that 10 days later the state's Siting Council would be holding a hearing on the project in Town Hall March 31.
During an interview last Thursday, the Siting Council's executive director, S. Derek Phelps, noted the council expects applicants to put up a sign on property where they intend to install a facility, "but it's not a legal requirement."
The approval process for what would be known as the "Sherwood Substation" began in October 2009, when CL&P undertook what it reported to the council was "a detailed and formal Municipal Consultation with Westport."
The power transmission company filed an application with the Siting Council Dec. 29, 2009, for a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need for the Sherwood Substation.
But unless you're a daily reader of legal notices in local media, Boyd notes, you can expect to miss those events.
You need to realize and be expecting as a citizen "these things might be coming down the pike, looking daily at every local newspaper for any potential posting," Boyd says.
The public's greatest stumbling block in participating in Siting Council activities may be not knowing to become a "party" or "intervenor" to an application. The council's website says, "One who participates as a party or intervener benefits from more in-depth participation, but also holds greater responsibility in the hearing process.
The council's web site goes on to say:
"Those who receive approval from the Council to become parties or interveners participate in the evidentiary hearing. This type of involvement is more formal and requires thoughtful preparation. Evidentiary hearings include the presentation of witnesses, the numbering of all exhibits, requests for administrative notice, and the verification of all exhibits by appropriate witnesses.
"Witness panels are subject to cross-examination by the Council and the parties and interveners. Following cross-examination of the applicant, each party and intervener is provided an opportunity to present their exhibits and witnesses and are subject to cross-examination by the Council and other parties and interveners."
In a draft "Finding of Facts" of May 5, 2010, the council said CL&P conducted "public outreach" by mailing information packages to 28 area residences. Boyd, Weil and Burke live about a half mile north of the site and were not recipients of the packages.
The company told the council it did not send information to residences north of the site "because an active railroad, Interstate 95 (I-95), and Greens Farms Road are located between the site and the residential area."
The council's March hearing in Town Hall was "incredibly appalling," Weil says. "There was no one on that council who said, 'Can we take a minute here and listen to what's being said to us by the people living in this neighborhood.' We were completely, totally dismissed."
The three also believe the written objections they sent to the council after the hearing during a 30-day comment period were ignored.
"We wrote the Siting Council asking them to put it in another place," says Weil. "We had a hundred names on a petition saying we don't want this here."
Asked about this, Phelps said all comment materials were copied and mailed to the council's members prior to their vote of approval. In the end, Phelps said, the council members "did what they thought was appropriate" in approving the application.
Substations receive electricity from power plants at a high voltage and reduce it to a voltage distributable to local streets. In the case of the Sherwood Substation, electricity would be received at 115,000 volts and be reduced to 13.8 thousand volts.
In a Development and Management Plan filed with the Siting Council, CL&P says the Sherwood Substation would occupy a 21,270 square-foot portion of a 2.56 acre parcel, and be 136 feet long by between 102 and 162 feet wide.
The company has told the council it needs the new substation because the existing distribution system in Westport is not configured to meet short-term (2013) demands reliably, or to accommodate projected long-term demands (2015 and beyond). The company says it estimates electric load growth in Westport will increase 2 percent a year.
The electrical equipment would be enclosed by a seven-foot-high chain link fence, the plan says, topped by one foot of barbed wire. The tallest equipment would be 14 feet high.
Approximately 70 trees will be cleared, the plan says, retaining as many trees as possible between the construction area and New Creek Road to "maintain a mature vegetative buffer."
In response to the council telling CL&P to further investigate limiting the "visual profile" of the substation, the company said it would modify its landscaping plan from planting 38 spruce trees 12-14 feet tall to trees that are 16-20 feet tall, "at an additional cost of $20,000."
The company says it will take 12 to 18 months to construct the substation at an estimated cost of $19.8 million, with it entering service in January 2012.
After the Sherwood Substation is turned on, the company says it will dismantle its Green Farms substation.
"The science is very soft," but there could be health problems from the facility, Weil warns.
Some say this is an enormous potential risk, Weil continues, with all kinds of cancers, particularly when you take into account the electric fields, the magnetic fields, and the cell tower, which is in very close proximity.
There is a cell telephone tower within a half mile of the substation property, and the three opponents believe the microwave radiation from the tower could combine with the electro-magnetic fields produced by the substation to create what Boyd describes as "a triple storm kind of thing."
Boyd, who treats people for ecological wellness problems, says although measurement of electro-magnetic fields drops rapidly as you move away from the source, "I know intuitively that those two things can potentiate one another and that can be really quite disastrous."
So you have a "triple storm" kind of thing, she says, plus electric fields from the railroad up and down the line.
"I had not heard that argument before; I've been here 34 years," says Christopher Swan, CL&P's Director of Municipal Relations and Sitings for the company's transmission business. Swan, who met with Boyd, Weil and Burke in Boyd's home two days before the public hearing, adds he's not denying the theoretical health hazard could exist.
Meantime, Weil says, "We have children, property values. What's the security going to be? Can we take some time here and really do our research?"
CL&P has told the council the project would have "no noticeable effect" on magnetic fields levels at the residence nearest the transmission line and substation.
None of the company's documentation speaks specifically to the theoretical hazard of combining the electro-magnetic waves of a power substation with the microwave radiation of a cell tower.
"So," Boyd says, "there's no question about the health impact from either of these alone, but together they're more than the sum of their parts; they're exponentially more dangerous and in ways that science has not yet caught up with understanding."
Boyd also believes there should be more effort to conserve electricity.
This could be a "perfect storm," she says. With what's going on in the world and the ecological crisis, we're often unhappy with the realities of our energy consumption and unwilling to do anything about it.
It's a good opportunity, she says, to prove to CL&P there are motivated people in town who would like to reduce their energy consumption and make obsolete a new power substation.
Her neighbor Weil, she says, has a huge (photovoltaic) array on the roof of his house to generate electricity, and uses geothermal energy to heat and cool his house.
There're also fuel cell technologies for alternative energy, Boyd says, with companies marketing them for commercial applications willing to find a way to string a community of houses together.
CL&P has told the Siting Council that Westport's customer base does not lend itself to load reduction because, "a majority of the electric demand in Westport results from the demolition of existing homes to build larger ones, and to build additions to existing home."
Boyd also believes CL&P wants to build on the New Creek Road property because it's near the water, and would offer an opportunity to sell electricity to Long Island by running cables along the bottom of the Sound.
Last Sunday the three talked about hiring a lawyer, but this Sunday night Boyd said nothing had changed.
The Siting Council's approval of the substation project becomes effective today, Monday, June 21.