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Parents vs. Duke Energy

You can imagine the dismay when parents of the elementary school where I volunteer heard that Duke Energy planned to put an electrical substation bigger than a football field right next to the school’s new building, just being completed.

Asheville, N.C., is booming – it seems to be on everyone’s list of ten best places to live or retire or have a second home or spend a weekend. New downtown hotels are springing up like weeds. Trees in my historic neighborhood fall as new houses in the style of the old rise up out of ravines.

All that means a demand for more electricity – hence the three new electrical substations Duke Energy has proposed for our city, including one to be placed next to the new Isaac Dickson green school.

Designed for LEED certification, the building reflects Isaac Dickson Elementary’s commitment to environmental education. Even in our temporary quarters at an old school nearby, a couple of chickens scratch around by the parking lot and students have been planting a pollinator garden.

When the Parent Teacher Organization got wind of the plan, they – like parents at other schools that have found themselves in this situation – sprung into action.

They did legal research and studied health effects. They held meetings with city, school, and Duke Energy officials, collected signatures on a petition, and last Sunday night a crowd of several hundred people packed the gymnasium of the building the school has been borrowing while the new one was being built.

Sitting on our folding chairs, we heard a lot of words from parents and government officials, but the best part for me was this video in which the kids spoke for themselves: “No Duke Energy Next dividedmindsDoor,” made by parents Francine Cavanagh and Adams Wood. (You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ze92msx-Zs&feature=youtu.be.)

The video sums up the parents’ worries – the chance of fires, explosions or electrocutions, and the possible health effects of an electromagnetic field so close to a school (a topic of continuing scientific debate). Some parents have already said publicly that if the substation is built, they won’t send their kids to the new school.

That would endanger a quality of the school that rivals its environmental ethos in my mind. Isaac Dickson Elementary, named for an African-American pioneer of public education in Asheville, is a school where classes and races mix in a town where that does not often happen. I share the reasonable fear that if the substation is built, those parents who have resources to send their kids elsewhere will do just that, and the school will be poorer in more ways than one.

But it was encouragingly clear from Sunday night’s meeting in the gymnasium that parents intend to make a determined fight. They pushed city officials hard to make relocating the substation a high priority.

The city was, in fact, slow as a turtle to identify the substation as a problem. The site next to Isaac Dickson was on a list of possible substation sites that Duke Energy presented to city staff last fall, but at least a couple of City Council members have said they didn’t hear about it until spring – after the company had already bought the property.

A Powerpoint by attorney and parent Steve Agan noted that the “city staff’s failure to notify Asheville City Council and the School Board prior to purchasing property has taken away or diminished the city’s ability to effectively negotiate.”

What, then, at this late hour, is to be done?

As a start, Duke Energy has said it would consider building one of the other two substations first, and that would leave time for the city and parents to try to come up with an alternate site and find a buyer for the $5.35 million site the company has already purchased.

Finding an alternate site would be a challenge, since because substations step down power voltage from high to low, they need to be near the downtown areas they serve, and competition for land in or near the downtown is fierce.

The city is already looking for an alternative site for another of the proposed substations, since building it where Duke Energy plans to put it would endanger federal funding and credits for a mixed income housing project. The prospect of finding two new sites is not rosy.

If no acceptable alternative site is found for the substation next to Isaac Dickson, I have heard a proposal at a school cafeteria meeting that made sense to me: burying the substation to reduce the hazard of electrocution, explosion, fire, and electromagnetic fields. It’s been done in Manhattan and Tokyo – why not (other than cost and political will) in our booming town?

Meanwhile, both county and city governments are entertaining notions of tightening zoning regulations, and State Senator Terry Van Duyn has promised she would develop a bill in the legislature that would forestall situations like this elsewhere in the state. She cautioned realism: she is one of only 16 Democrats in the 50-member N.C. Senate.

Carol Polsgrove is author of  Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement.

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