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West Memphis plant inauguration today

Allied project took congressional flak

A new $15 million manufacturing plant and testing laboratory in West Memphis with close ties to the Clean Line Energy project, which is roundly opposed by Arkansas’ delegation in Congress, officially opens today.

Production at the plant began earlier this month with about 30 workers. More than 75 workers will be at the plant eventually, Sediver USA and its Francebased parent, Seves Group, said. The companies said it is their first investment in the United States in about 20 years.

The plant will manufacture and test toughened glass insulators for a proposed 700-mile transmission line to deliver 4,000 megawatts of wind power — enough to serve 1 million households — from wind farms in the Oklahoma panhandle to a terminal just north of Memphis, where it would connect with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power grid for distribution across the Southeast. In so doing, the line would cross 12 northern Arkansas counties.

Clean Line Energy Partners, based in Houston, announced in June 2015 that Sediver would be its “preferred supplier” for some $60 million in glass insulators and that Sediver had selected the West Memphis site.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has expressed concern though not opposition to the $2.5 billion transmission project, is to attend the plant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. today, a spokesman said, as are the top executives of Sediver USA and the Seves Group. The ceremony will be topped off with tours of the plant’s production lines and high-voltage testing laboratory. The plant is in the city’s Mid America Industrial Park.

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Arkansas’ six members of Congress — two U.S. senators and four House members, all Republicans — have opposed the Clean Line project since its approval last year by President Barack Obama’s administration. The project’s transmission line would run through all four congressional districts.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman has business in Springdale at the time of the West Memphis event, his spokesman, Patrick Creamer, said.

“I think anytime there are jobs being created in Arkansas, it’s a good thing,” Creamer said. “The senator’s underlying concern with the project is how it was presented and handled, in terms of the state and others not being able to weigh in on it.”

All six recently joined together in a letter to Rick Perry, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, stating their opposition to the project. While accusing the Obama administration of a “vast overreach” and of violating the rights of landowners in approving the project, they expressed support in general for renewable energy. Perry has been praised by the American Wind Energy Association, for “leadership on wind energy infrastructure” during his time as a governor of Texas.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission rejected the Clean Line project in 2011.

The Department of Energy approved it in March 2016 under a section of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, giving the department the “authority to design, develop, construct, operate, own, or participate with other entities in designing, developing, constructing, operating, maintaining, or owning … electric power transmission facilities.” (State authorities in Oklahoma and Tennessee also have approved the project.)

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, whose 1st Congressional District includes West Memphis, won’t be at the event, a representative of his district office in Jonesboro said.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton won’t be attending, his spokesman, Caroline Rabbitt, said, adding that she wasn’t aware of an invitation.

Beau Walker, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, whose 3rd Congressional District includes a couple of counties through which the Clean Line project would pass, said he wasn’t aware of any invitation to the event.

The transmission lines, if built, would enter Arkansas just north of Van Buren and run east through Franklin, Johnson, Pope, Conway, Van Buren, Cleburne, White, Jackson, Poinsett, Cross and Mississippi counties.

Clean Line Energy has said the project will result in some $30 million in payments to Arkansas landowners for easements and for building transmission towers on their property. Another $147 million in tax payments would be made over some 40 years to the Arkansas counties directly affected, the company said. The company also has contracted with Bekaert Corp.in Van Buren to provide the steel for the project and with General Cable in Malvern to manufacture cable.

Clean Line Energy also plans to build a facility near Dover in Pope County to convert some 500 megawatts of direct current power coming in from Oklahoma into alternating current power, which would then be available to some 160,000 Arkansas households. The company wants to begin construction this year and have the project operating by 2020.

The Public Service Commission’s decision in 2011 not to license Clean Line Energy as a public utility was made before the company changed its plans to include the Pope County converter and then sell power, through Entergy Arkansas and other electric utilities, to households in the state.

Mark Drury, a public relations contact for the West Memphis ceremony, said he believed that all six members of the congressional delegation had been invited. He also said the production at the West Memphis plant won’t be jeopardized by any uncertainty over the Clean Line project.

“Sediver is serving existing customers,” Drury said, “but certainly as the Clean Line project moves forward, it gives the plant room to grow.”

Womack and Boozman have filed identical bills requiring approval of a state’s governors and legislators before the Department of Energy can approve the Clean Lines project or similar ones. Their Arkansas colleagues have signed on as co-sponsors.

Two groups representing landowners in Arkansas are seeking to end the project through a federal lawsuit filed in August against the Department of Energy. The landowners say the department acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in approving the project and illegally in ignoring the concerns of the state. They also question the company’s access to eminent domain, or when private land can be acquired by the government, with just compensation, for public use.

The next hearing in the case has been set for Nov. 14 in Little Rock.

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