Meet Your Public Utility

Your Comments to the West Virginia Public Service Commission Are in Order Now

By Vivian Stockman

Allegheny Power Systems (APS), including its subsidiaries, owned Blackwater Canyon for about 70 years. The company bought the Canyon with an eye toward building a hydroelectric power dam on the Blackwater River. By 1997, thoughts of damming the Blackwater for power generation were long gone, and the company wanted the Canyon off the books, so they sold it for $4.85 million, ignoring an $3.5 million offer from The Conservation and the US Forest Service.

One company official insists that the sale was in no way related to the specter of electric utility deregulation hovering over West Virginia. APS currently owns 20,500 acres in and near Canaan Valley, Tucker County. The company owns land in five states, much of it along river valleys, because of the (former) potential for hydroelectric dams.

The official told me because of looming deregulation, "everybody thinks we are going to sell the land, but that is not necessarily the case." APS has a land management team working on ecological assessments, that is looking into things like conservation easements (thanks to a suggestion from Judy Rodd), sustainability programs, and carbon credits.

Another company official was also quoted as saying the sale of Blackwater Canyon wasn’t related to the potential for deregulation. He said it was only the interests of the stock holder APS had in mind when it sold Blackwater down the river.

Hence, the Supreme Court hearing October 7, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy vs. APS. Even if the sell-off wasn’t related to potential deregulation, APS should have considered a little more than stockholders’ wallets. According to WV law, a public utility must consider the public interest when selling off any of its assets. By the time this goes to press our arguments will have been heard, and we will anxiously await the Court’s decision.

And, we nervously await for deregulation to resurface in WV. The WV Public Service Commission (PSC) has sidelined any plans for dereg right now, but the issue will be back. If/when dereg hits our state, what will happen to the land APS owns? Company officials may be being completely forthright when they say they’re not necessarily selling-off the land. But, they may not have any choice in the matter. Billy Jack Gregg, Consumer Advocate at the PSC, says he would recommend that utilities sell off their land as part of any deregulation plan the state adopts.

Although any plan is on hold for now, the PSC is still accepting public comments on the matter. How can we ensure that the public interest is served if these lands are sold off? Now is the time to let the PSC know what a stake the public has in the lands held by APS and American Electric Power (AEP). These lands were obtained under the aegis of the public good, and if utilities do end up divesting themselves of their lands, it must be for the public good.

APS insists it is (belatedly) recognizing that lands like the Blackwater Canyon provide so much for the public good and interest. The economic value of an intact ecosystem, a biological ark of species and natural systems, is immense, but hard to quantify. Living trees give us oxygen, water cycle management, erosion control, climate control, carbon dioxide absorption, wildlife habitat, joy and more. Recreationally, areas like the Canyon and lands held by public utilities, offer so much: hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, bird watching, scientific study areas, a quiet oasis from "regular" life and more.

You can get your comments in to the PSC by e-mailing BTeets@gwmail.State.WV.US or by snail-mailing to PSC, PO Box 812, Charleston, WV 25323-0812. You can also check out what the PSC say about the whole issue on the web at