Energy plan jolts Emporia families
Westar wants to expand a substation in Emporia to accommodate Hill's, but neighbors are alarmed
EMPORIA — Joanne Evans is leery of washing dishes in the kitchen of her eastside home.
There is reason to cast a wary eye out the window while standing at the sink overlooking a Westar Energy substation. The kitchen appears to be a magnet for stray voltage suspected of escaping from the towering web of steel framing, wire and transformers that casts a shadow over Evans' neighborhood.
Despite residents' protests, the Emporia City Commission has agreed to let Westar Energy expand this electric substation at 200 S. East St. in Emporia. Opponents are talking of a legal challenge.
Westar officials say testing failed to affirm complaints neighbors forwarded about loud noise, stray voltage, fire hazards, seismic vibrations and other issues. The Emporia City Commission voted unanimously to approve a permit to allow a 25 percent expansion of the substation, but work could be hindered by legal challenges.
"We have constitutional rights," Evans said. "Westar is penetrating our walls. This is a home."
While random jolts — not life-threatening but far more intense than static — intermittently leave a mark, Evans and several neighbors say a more recent phenomenon has become a psychological irritation. Three years ago, they say, the substation mysteriously began emitting a louder around-the-clock hum.
"It sounds like a car idling in the front yard," said neighbor Lupe Villar, "but nobody ever drives away."
Westar engineers and executives say they have yet to substantiate these complaints and found no reason to delay a plan to make the substation Emporia's largest. The location already serves more than a third of the city, but a fourth transformer is needed to accommodate demand from Hill's Pet Nutrition. The Topeka company is building a 300,000-square-foot warehouse near the Evans property.
Back and forth
The Emporia City Commission balked the first time Westar sought a permit to enlarge the substation to the east — the only side of the facility not boxed in by housing in the low-income neighborhood. Commissioners kicked it back to the Emporia-Lyon County Metropolitan Planning Commission, which already endorsed the project.
The planning commission convened a second round of public hearings in October. It pitted Westar staff members enthusiastic about the development against East Street residents unhappy with the prospects of hosting one of the largest substations in the utility's inventory. Westar has about 1,000 substations scattered across its territory to convert high-voltage electricity to a form consumable in homes and businesses.
Westar civil engineer Cindy Risch said the company took complaints of unusual sounds and stray voltage seriously, because both could be indicators of impending equipment failure. She said the load pushed through the substation had grown each year since 2005 but not substantially.
Hypothetically, Risch said, a grid of copper wire buried beneath the substation to provide protection to workers inside the perimeter might be leaking voltage. The Evans home is 10 feet from the substation's chain-link fence.
Bill Hines, Westar's operations director in Wichita, said considerable manpower was devoted to examining safety claims made by people residing around the Emporia substation, but nothing out of the ordinary was found.
"We did a lot of investigation and thus far have not found anything," Hines said. "We're trying to be good neighbors."
Kelly Kauffman, an attorney hired to represent Joanne Evans and her husband, Jeff, said an audio technician hired by Westar confirmed sound from the substation registered inside their home. She said one of the Evans children, who had braces on his teeth, was struck inside his mouth by stray voltage. A previous resident of the house, an elderly woman, made complaints, which were dismissed at the time, about being "bit by the counter" or "bit by the washing machine," Kauffman said.
She said electricians inspected the home and concluded it was properly grounded. Her clients don't object to the appearance of the substation but contend vibration from the facility is damaging the foundation of their home. She said the unit exposes the neighborhood to unusual electromagnetic field readings. While the science on EMFs is controversial, the California Department of Health pointed to a link between EMFs and onset of leukemia in children and brain cancer in adults.
"Apparently," Kauffman said, "we're supposed to just take Westar's word that these things aren't happening."
Monte Miller, an attorney on the Emporia-Lyon County planning commission, said people purchasing property must accept responsibility for their decision, whether that transaction turns out to be wise or foolish. The substation had been on East Street for 40 years before the Evans house was built and more than 65 years before they decided to buy it.
"Are you familiar with the assumption of risk?" Miller asked Kauffman during a planning commission public hearing on the matter.
Of course, she said, but the issue was damage to the Evans property after 2004 and likely escalation of harm if the substation were allowed to grow.
"That's your opinion," Miller replied.
Emporia city manager Matt Zimmerman urged approval of a permit if Westar builds a 6-foot-tall concrete wall to obscure the north and south views of the substation. The Evans home is to the south.
Westar's own consultant recommended a set of 17-foot walls. Risch balked at that idea because such a tall facade could cost $750,000. She suggested 9-foot walls, which are standard for a security fence and cost $250,000. The Evanses viewed construction of any wall as a cosmetic Band-Aid.
Mark Schreiber, a member of the planning board, sat in the audience. He is a Statehouse lobbyist for Westar and an Emporia resident but recused himself from public involvement in deliberations.
Several members of the planning commission said they didn't feel qualified to decide the matter.
Commissioner Kenton Thomas said it might be appropriate to "admit this is beyond our knowledge." Member Greg Jordan said he wasn't comfortable acting before completion of more testing. Commissioner Chris Rech endorsed the idea of passing the issue back to the Emporia City Commission without a recommendation.
Despite expressing their apprehension, the board voted 7-0 to endorse Westar's conditional-use permit.
The five city commissioners listened Wednesday to Kauffman and Risch repeat conflicting arguments about EMFs, seismic vibrations, errant voltage and pure-tone sounds. Commissioners posed a handful of questions, but there was no reason for Westar to fret. Ordinance 08-40 was adopted unanimously.
"To me," said City Commissioner Jim Kessler, "it boils down to the importance and need for power. We are a modern society. We need electricity."
Commissioner Jeff Longbine, chairman of an organization that focuses on business expansion and who played a role in recruiting Hill's to Emporia, said the city had an obligation to accommodate significant industrial interests, such as Westar and Hill's. Westar recently built a $330 million gas-fired power plant east of Emporia, while Hill's agreed to invest at least $100 million in a pet food facility in the Emporia business park. The Hill's plant is expected to create 100 jobs.
Economic considerations take on added relevance given the move in January by Tyson Foods to eliminate 1,500 jobs in Emporia.
"It's our job to look at the city as a whole and, to me, the positives of upgrading the substation outweighs the possible detriment to the people," Longbine said.
Commissioner Julie Johnson said one of the challenges of her job was deciding where to locate essential but aesthetically undesirable facilities. Nobody wants a landfill nearby, she said, but the reality is people need a place to throw trash.
"Electricity is something we all have to use," she said. "There's no getting around it."
Unsatisfied with response from Westar and City Hall, Joanne Evans contacted Rep. Peggy Mast and Sen. Jim Barnett, both Emporia Republicans. Mast visited the substation and assured Evans that Westar was a responsible corporate citizen and would do right by the family, Evans said.
Barnett said he asked Schreiber, the Westar lobbyist, to meet with Evans. Schreiber recalls his 2007 visit to the house was inconclusive. Evans says it was a disaster.
Evans said Schreiber blamed the buzzing noise on the home's furnace, but she said it was turned off at the time. She claims that Schreiber mentioned he "prayed with" Barnett and that she shouldn't expect meaningful assistance from the senator. Schreiber, however, said religion never surfaced while speaking with Evans.
"He didn't see us as worthy," Evans said. "We've been disenfranchised."
Nathaniel Jones, who bought a house across the street from the substation two years ago, said anxiety in the neighborhood about the substation wasn't limited to the Evans family.
"It is much wider than that," Jones said.
Villar, owner of a house in the neighborhood for 30 years, said the proposed concrete walls would funnel sound more directly toward her front door.
"It's inhumane," she said. "They know how to fix the problem. I don't feel they're being honest."
Sara Kelly, who owns property east of the substation, said she agreed to allow her driveway to be used as an emergency rear entrance to the substation. She said she was unaware at that time Westar wanted to expand the substation, but her cooperation was shared with neighbors to encourage their cooperation.
"My heart sank," Kelly said. "I feel like I've been used."
Evans turned to the Kansas Corporation Commission, which has regulatory authority over utilities operating in the state. She asked the KCC staff in Topeka to explore safety issues at the substation but was informed the agency didn't investigate that type of complaint.
"Kansas law says otherwise," said Bob Eye, a Topeka attorney assisting Kauffman on behalf of the Evans family.
Eye sent a letter to the KCC requesting an inquiry into stray voltage, EMF, ground vibration, excessive noise and fire hazards at the substation.
Kauffman said the Evans family proposed that Westar purchase their home and land for $400,000. A portion of the money would constitute compensation for anguish the family endured.
Schreiber said Westar preferred to fix identifiable problems with the substation "rather than buy somebody out."
"That's extra money that our investors and customers have to cover," he said. "We don't think it's required."
Schreiber dismissed the idea of moving the substation to the industrial park because it would be "very, very expensive."
Approval of Westar's permit sets the stage for a new phase in the dispute. The Evanses are expected to file a lawsuit to block the substation expansion. Legal action could unravel Westar's plan to have the new unit online next summer for Hill's. A spokeswoman for Hill's had no comment about the situation.
"Westar doesn't have the right to operate its substations in a manner that inflicts damages upon the adjacent property owners," Kauffman said.
Tim Carpenter can be reached at (785) 295-1158 or timothy.carpenter @cjonline.com.