RANDOLPH COUNTY, Mo. — At a recent meeting of the Randolph County Commission, commissioners voted to rescind a previous letter supporting the proposed Grain Belt Express Clean Line project that would cross the county.
The withdrawal of support has been filed with the Missouri Public Service Commission, said Presiding Commissioner John Truesdell. That means Randolph County has become the sixth of the eight counties that the wind power transmission line would pass through to withdraw support.
The Grain Belt Express Clean Line is a roughly 780-mile direct-current transmission line that would deliver wind energy from Kansas to Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and other states. It has faced fierce opposition over the last few years from farmers and landowners concerned about their property rights.
The Randolph County Commission's latest move to rescind its letter of support comes as officials with the PSC are gearing up for evidentiary hearings to decide whether the Texas-based company behind the proposed line, Clean Line Energy Partners, should be granted eminent domain. That would entail the clearances necessary to operate as a utility in the state of Missouri.
The withdrawal of official support also comes not long after John Hobbs was voted in as a commissioner for Randolph County. Hobbs has been a vocal opponent of the Grain Belt Express.
Hobbs confirmed that the commission had rescinded the letter of support but declined to comment further on the matter.
Truesdell clarified that, although the commission has rescinded its official support for the wind energy transmission line, the attitude hasn't changed. The commission assumed a neutral stance on the matter around two years ago.
"The only thing that prompted action is that our legal counsel said that, if we wanted to be truly neutral, we should draft a letter to rescind the prior document," Truesdell said.
The move was meant to solidify the neutral stance of the commission, setting aside personal views the commissioners might hold, Truesdell said.
"You have the commission and you have the commissioners," he said. "Different commissioners feel differently about this project, and they always have. But this commission decided two years ago that we were going to sit back and see what each individual commission did themselves.
"Commissioners have been free to go out and speak to the PSC or public, but we would not express that as the opinion of the county."
Randolph County commissioners have long maintained that the decision on whether to allow the Grain Belt Express to move forward will not be decided in this county. The county commission is now simply waiting for the PSC to make a decision, Truesdell said.
"I know there are heated opinions," he said. "But, if they grant this, then that direction is clear for the commission. We have all sworn to uphold the statutes of the state of Missouri."
However, Truesdell said he doesn't believe the battle over the Grain Belt Express will be won or lost anytime soon, noting that the PSC has previously rejected the company's applications. The company has appealed, and Truesdell noted that those opposed to the project, such as the Block Grain Belt Express group, would likely keep fighting, too.
The official input of county commissions could end up having an influence on the PSC's decision, however. When it approved Ameren's 95-mile high-voltage power line to cross northeastern Missouri last April, the PSC did so conditionally, saying that the company would need to earn the approval of individual county commissions to allow the line to cross roads within the counties.
There has been no official indication so far on whether the PSC would reach a similar decision on the Grain Belt Express.
As it has faced opposition from farmers and landowners citing concerns over eminent domain, property rights and potential health effects (which have not been scientifically proven to be of legitimate concern), the company behind the Grain Belt Express project has touted local benefits of the line.
The company has said that, if the line is allowed to move forward, it would pay Randolph County residents whose land the line would cross a total of around $3.4 million. The company also estimated that it would pay around $720,000 in taxes in the first year of operation. Those taxes would benefit county schools, fire protection districts and other taxing entities.
However, opponents point out that Clean Line has not permanently waived its right to protest property taxes and assessments or to seek tax abatement.
At a public hearing in Moberly last December, proponents of the project cited improvements in environmentally friendly energy infrastructure, financial benefits to farmers and reduced energy costs for Missouri electric customers. Some utility companies in counties the Grain Belt would cross have agreed to purchase power from the line.
Randolph County Commissioner Wayne Wilcox said he was not present for the commission's vote to rescind the letter of support for the Grain Belt Express.