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Feds offer new hearings on power line expansions

May 9 - By Devlin Barrett - The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Federal officials said Wednesday they will expand their public hearings on two proposed electricity "transmission corridors" - designations that could spur the building of major new power lines in many states regardless of local opposition.

Last month, the Department of Energy proposed the first such corridors of their kind. One would stretch from Southern California into Arizona and Nevada.

On the East Coast, another corridor would run north from Virginia, and include most of Maryland, all of New Jersey and Delaware and large sections of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Authorities initially said they would hold public meetings on the corridors in San Diego, Arlington, Va., and New York City.

That list was expanded Wednesday to add meetings in Pittsburgh, Pa., Rochester, N.Y., Phoenix, Ariz., and Las Vegas, Nev. No dates were given for the meetings.

The hearings could become contentious if opponents turn out to fight power line construction in their small communities.

In New York, lawmakers have united against one such proposal, the New York Regional Interconnect. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and others want the agency to hold public meetings in areas directly affected by NYRI, and were angry at the selection of Rochester, some 135 miles from the proposed line's starting point near Utica.

"Clearly, they want to avoid areas where there is the greatest opposition. They want to hold it someplace where it's difficult for people to travel," said Hinchey, adding that he and other lawmakers are considering holding their own hearings in their districts.

Another congressman, Michael Arcuri of Utica, called the choice of Rochester "insulting and unacceptable," while Rep. John Hall accused officials of "trying to hide."

A 2005 law passed by Congress gave the federal government greater say on where high-priority transmission lines should be built. If states and regional groups fail to build the lines, the government could order them built.

Concerns about congestion in the electrical grid were heightened after a major blackout in 2003 that swept from Ohio to Canada and New York City.

The corridor designations could help private industry obtain permits from state regulators or to work in conjunction with regional groups to build new lines. Utilities have long accused state authorities of being reluctant to approve new lines, often because of local opposition.

Once a 60-day comment period on the corridors ends, the law calls for state regulators to try to strike agreements on where new lines should be built.

If state authorities do not approve any construction after a year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the authority to intervene and approve a grid project if the new line is deemed necessary to satisfy national power needs.