Power to the People: The Process

Power to the People: The Process

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Santee Cooper says it's building a new transmission line to benefit its customers, sending WMBF News a statement that reads: "The Marion-Red Bluff line is critical to increasing reliability and meeting future demands for electricity in Horry County."

That line will stretch more than 21 miles.  It takes A lot of work and a lot of money to build a line like that. It also takes a lot of land, in this case, nearly one hundred parcels.

"We think that Santee Cooper were to come in here and tell us what they propose," said affected landowner Walden Graham, "then if the route's got to go through then let's compromise so it'll do the least damage to all of us."

The beginning of the Marion to Red Bluff line will go right through the middle of Graham's land. Santee Cooper chose this route, over four others.

DIG DEEPER: View a Google Earth Map showing the proposed transmission lines below, or click here.

A spokeswoman for the company told us, "After the beginning and end points of a new line are determined, several routes to connect these known points are selected and evaluated."

"First, I hope Santee Cooper takes the route that has the least amount of impact to the landowner," said State Representative Jeff Johnson of Conway. He represents the landowners involved in this project.

According to a cost analysis obtained by WMBF News, the route chosen impacts 97 parcels of land. The other four routes are shorter and go through fewer parcels. The route chosen was Santee Cooper's cheapest option.

Some of the landowners in the middle of the proposed line think Santee Cooper is taking the easy way out.

"This is already cleared, there's not going to be a whole lot of cost putting a line through here," said Martha Ann Johnson. "If you went through some wooded land, less productive land, there would be more cost. Even if it cost more, and electricity had to go up a little bit, it would actually be fairer."

"It's frustrating, their unwillingness to budge, their unwillingness to move," said landowner Carolyn Gobbel.

But WMBF News obtained hundreds of pages of emails from the Santee Cooper team working on this project, and some of them show a clear willingness to work with affected landowners.

Other emails, tell a different story.

One sent in June of 2016 about Miriam Carroll, the landowner who first came to WMBF News about the proposed line, shows one employee "did not feel it is appropriate to move the route and increase the easement acreage required on a neighboring landowner."

DIG DEEPER: View a PDF document with some of the e-mails obtained by WMBF News below, or click here. 

We asked Santee Cooper why a shift wasn't made in her case. The company said "If a landowner wants a line moved off of her property, she must seek and gain the consent of the newly-impacted landowner… Consent of the newly-impacted landowner was never gained (was never communicated to Santee Cooper)."

An email about Carolyn Gobbel shows one Santee Cooper employee say he "can live with some more adjustments to the route." But that is quickly addressed by Teresa Hensley with Transmission Line Design. She says, "I have been adamant we treat everyone the same. I cannot do for one what I am not willing to do for all as that is not ethical… We have worked with those willing to work with us. The Gobbel's have not been willing to work with us to identify a win win solution."

"I don't want to sell it, I don't want you to take it," Gobbel said, "and you are affecting the rest of the property five years, ten years down the road."

Martha Ann Johnson's land isn't discussed in the emails, but she does hope Santee Cooper will agree to move closer to the property line.

"Yes that would definitely be better," she said. "Of course we'd prefer it not to come at all, but yes it would definitely, definitely be better. My past experience though has been that it will probably not happen."

From picking a route, to surveying the land, the next move is to appraise it. Documents show Santee Cooper estimates this land is worth $15,000 per acre.

It says "This is done for internal budget purposes and has no impact on the ultimate determination of fair market value or the offer made to the landowner... The ultimate fair market value determination is made by an independent appraiser."

And when it comes to money, things change, evidenced in an email exchange in August of 2016.

Al Lopez, a project manager, says, "Because the route is changing is not an excuse to not revisit this project." Hensley comes back with details about a line that is now half a mile longer, and nearly $3 million more expensive than originally thought. Lopez says, "I am glad you went back and did this… the estimate apparently increased a good bit, so worthwhile."

Costs outside of building the line must also be considered. In an email, James Bridge in land rights acquisition says landowners "asked if damages to crops would be paid for during survey and construction." Ken Sott from right-of-way management said, "I would think that crop damage would be paid for during construction," but later added, "if we had no other choice but to damage crops to restore a line, personally I do not think we should have a legal obligation to pay." Vicky Budreau, a vice president in fuels strategy and supply, replied all, "If there is an emergency and we damage crops, I believe that historically we have paid for it."

Santee Cooper says it understands this can be a confusing process, saying, "We work closely with property owners in any transmission project, and we always prefer direct communication." It says it has "the goal of providing low cost, reliable power to our customers."

"If this is something that's going to make the community better, it's necessary," said Representative Johnson. "Everybody likes electricity, I like it."

Read and watch the first part of our Power to the People investigation here:

Exclusive Digital Content

See a detailed Google Map showing the approximate locations of proposed transmission lines below:

View a PDF with some of the Santee Cooper emails obtained by WMBF News below:

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