The following story was written and reported by Eric S. Peterson of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The West View .
In April, west-side residents awoke to flyers on their doors letting them know that for the sake of cleaner air and more reliable power, their doorsteps would be darkened by modified power lines, in some places 30 feet higher than the existing poles. Rocky Mountain Power officials said they “thoroughly” explored several options for the industrial-looking transmission lines with city officials and that this route would have the least impact to property owners and would have minimal impact on property values.
But there are several problems with that statement. No Salt Lake City officials seem to have records of any alternative line proposals discussing routes, costs or other impacts. Some alternative routes discussed would seem to have less of an impact on homeowners, though they would be more expensive for Marathon Petroleum, the company footing the bill with the goal of improving energy reliability at their Beck Street refinery operation. And several studies — including a major, multiyear study done in Salt Lake County — have found that transmission lines do negatively impact property values.
West side District 3 Councilman Chris Wharton remembered being briefed on the Beck Street line and asking RMP what the alternatives were.
“They said they had already looked at all the alternatives and that there were no other alternatives,” Wharton said. He said he was frustrated but couldn’t do much about it. The transmission line is on Rocky Mountain Power’s existing easements and so the city’s hands are tied, he said. District 2 Councilman Andrew Johnston got the same reception when he asked RMP if they had considered bypassing the Fairpark neighborhood by running lines along the vacant land just east of I-15 along the Folsom Trail. The polite answer he was told, was no. While Johnston supports cleaner air, he said, “it’s not necessarily a direct benefit to the neighborhood where the lines go through.”
A public records request to the city returned no documentation of proposed alternative routes, nor minutes of any meetings discussing such routes.
RMP spokesperson Spencer Hall noted in an email statement that at one point, the city’s redevelopment agency had sought to have sections of the line buried underground. But that would have cost the city $6 million and would have run north/south along 800 West, instead of 900 West like the current plan.
“The added cost of undergrounding four blocks of the line made the project financially unfeasible,” Hall said. Still, he said the current proposed line will have the least impact to property owners since over 80 percent of the alignment is a pole-to-pole replacement of existing power lines.
While underground lines can exponentially increase costs, another option was considered to build new lines running north along the refinery’s own property before cutting west across I-15—avoiding all of Rose Park.
According to Marathon spokesman Brad Shafer, there were a few problems with this option: It would disrupt the refinery’s business, and Rocky Mountain Power officials disliked the approach because they would have to negotiate an easement with the Union Pacific Railroad. That might add delays and additional costs to the project. By just replacing existing lines, RMP doesn’t have to build brand new lines or negotiate with anyone – they just had to tell west-siders the bad news.
“We do operate in the community and we wanted to try and support Rocky Mountain Power doing the job the right way. But at the end of the day, we still have a point at which the project is too expensive,” Shafer said.
That added cost may now simply be passed onto residents.
A 2016 article in The Appraisal Journal documented the effect of transmission lines on the sale of over 125,000 single-family residential sales in Salt Lake County between 2001 and 2014. That study found the greatest negative impact came from homes near 138 KV lines – the same as proposed in the Beck Street Transmission line – showing a 5.1 percent drop in sale value for homes within 50 meters of the lines. They also found the negative effects did not dissipate over time.
When asked if Marathon had considered spending more on the line to lessen the impacts on their residential neighbors, Shafer responded, “I don’t know how to answer that question.”
Shafer said the company will ultimately invest over $10 million in the line – but that will pay meaningful dividends in improved air quality for the surrounding community.
The increased voltage will help the refinery in producing Tier 3 gasoline, which releases less sulfur into the air than other gasolines. Shafer also stressed the added reliability will prevent power surges from shorting refinery equipment that cause “flares,” or the emergency release of polluting chemicals into the air – fireballs of toxic pollutants like sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.
Marathon has expressed a commitment to clean air, but usually after settling legal actions from federal regulators. The company began spending $319 million in 2016 on new flare-gas recovery systems after they were forced to as part of a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency to improve air around their refineries.
In April 2018, the refinery, then owned by Andeavor, received tax incentives from the state to help update its equipment to produce Tier 3 gasoline. At the end of that month, Marathon bought Andeavor for $23.3 billion, making Marathon the largest independent oil refinery in the nation.
Locally, the refinery is connected to the city’s west side. Shafer says Marathon sponsors community events, funds the Salt Lake County vehicle emission repair program, and even helped start robotics clubs at West High among other charitable endeavors.
But the company is also connected to RMP. The utility company was paid by Marathon to build their Beck Street substation. Beyond that, the refinery is a top energy customer.
“In Salt Lake Valley, we’re one of their biggest customers,” Shafer said.
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