The controversial multi-million dollar Heartland Transmission Project will not be buried and will proceed along the Sherwood Park route, the Alberta Utilities Commission [AUC] announced in approving the project Tuesday.

The commission found construction of the 500-kilovolt, double-circuit line, which will take electricity from existing power lines to the industrial area near Fort Saskatchewan called the Heartland region, was in the public interest.

The approved route, immediately east of Edmonton, takes the line past homes in Sherwood Park, which prompted calls for proponents Epcor Utilities and AltaLink to bury the line

The companies insisted that option would have doubled the cost of the project. The AUC found that evidence did not show an underground line was necessary or in the public interest.  

"At the distances we're talking about from the nearest school or daycare or residence, there is no real difference between the two options in terms of whether you went underground or above-ground," said AUC spokesman Jim Law.

"And secondly, that at those distances there was essentially no difference in the EMF [electric and magnetic fields] that would be experienced from the background levels that you would already find there."

Law said it would cost another $300 million to bury the line.

Strathcona County may appeal

The route runs along the city of Edmonton's eastern border, which will take the line through an existing transportation and utility corridor [TUC].  The commission found this route was better than an alternative route west of Edmonton. 

The proponents will have to use monopoles for the 9.5 kilometre section of line from Highway 14 to Baseline Road in order to reduce the visual impact. This would cost an additional $30 million, bumping the project price to about $610 million, Law said.

"That's in recognition of the visual impact in that section and there is a dramatic reduction in that if we go with the monopole option in the corridor," he said.

The commission has also ordered Epcor and AltaLink to look at moving the line further away from Colchester Elementary School.

The decision prompted foes of the project to examine their legal options.

"We're going to pursue legal remedies and political remedies," said Bruce Johnson from Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans [RETA].

"We'll see if there's any basis to challenge this decision in Court of Queen's Bench, not sure if there are. After that, it would be a class action lawsuit, based on the damages people will be suffering."

School may move

Strathcona County Mayor Linda Osinshuk called the decision a disappointment and said lawyers from her municipality will undertake a review to see if there are any avenues for appeal.

"Based on the evidence, this decision exposes some 15,000 residents to potential long-term health effects, and imposes an aesthetically unappealing overhead transmission design on our community," Osinchuk said in a news release.

"We are saddened and concerned by a decision that appears to be more about cost than health."

Elk Island Public Schools, the board responsible for Colchester Elementary, also expressed its disappointment in a news release and suggested it may need to move the school after consulting with parents.

The board will resume discussions with Alberta Education, Alberta Infrastructure, MLAs and county council about what to do next. A revamp of Fultonvale Elementary Junior High is one option on the table, the news release said.

"This is very disappointing news, as we know parents and residents in Strathcona County have put forward serious safety concerns regarding the above-ground power lines and were pushing to have the lines buried below the ground," Elk Island Superintendent Bruce Beliveau said in the release.

Decision only on route, not need

Opposition leaders questioned why the line needed to be built in the first place.

They criticized Bill 50, which removed the requirement for regulators to hold hearings on the need for new power lines. Instead, the law allows cabinet to decide which transmission lines are necessary pieces of infrastructure.

"The key here is that there was no independent needs assessment done. And secondly, the decisions are made in the backrooms and they're made the wrong way," Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said.

"It gives the ministers too much power and the premier's office to control very expensive decisions that generations of Albertans will pay for."

Last month, Energy Minister Ted Morton announced three major electrical transmission lines would be put on hold while the government reviewed its approach.

Later that same day, Premier Alison Redford attributed Morton's statement to a "miscommunciation" and said the request to suspend the AUC decision on the Heartland line was a mistake.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said those actions sent a clear message to the AUC, which he believes ignored the concerns of Albertans.

"All we can know is that Alison Redford decided that this project needed to go ahead, and the AUC followed her lead," he said.