NEW LONDON, Mo. | Representatives of the Grain Belt Express project said Tuesday morning that they are standing down from making in-person visits to area landowners because of the fight to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus.
The action came less than 24 hours after Krista Mann, director of renewable development, said during a conference call on Monday morning with the Ralls County Commission that Invenergy, the company that owns Grain Belt, would continue to call on landowners in an effort get rights-of-way approval for the project.
Mann said on Tuesday the company reversed course and would not make in-person visits to landowners or county courthouses during the period of social distancing urged by the Centers for Disease Control and an order issued over the weekend by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.
“Our response to the coronavirus has been evolving along with the rest of the world,” Mann said when asked why the company changed its position. She said that in-person meetings would resume “when it is generally considered safe to resume normal activities.”
Wiley Hibbard, chairman of the Ralls County Commission, said he was livid after the telephone conference with Mann and Max Moore of Grain Belt, particularly because the county has closed off the courthouse, restaurants are closed for in-person dining and the United States Bureau of the Census has suspended visits to homes by enumerators because of the coronavirus fight.
“It was unbelievable that Grain Belt would take the position that was stated and make no change to their policy of in-person meetings, I was incensed, to say the least,” Hibbard said.
After the meeting and into Monday night Hibbard reached out to representatives of Gov. Mike Parson, who assured him they would make contact with Grain Belt officials to seek a reversal of the position to continue in-person contacts.
“I am certain that the governor's office played a large role in the new position they have taken. But I need to know that they are really going to do what they say,” Hibbard said.
Hibbard is an opponent of the Missouri Public Service Commission's 2019 decision ruling that Grain Belt Express was a public utility, which gives the project rights of eminent domain to acquire land. That decision was upheld last week by Missouri Supreme Court.
Grain Belt's plan is to transmit wind-produced electricity over high-tension power lines that will cut a swath through parts of Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana before joining a major East Coast power grid. The project has agreed to sell a small portion of its power to Missouri communities, including Hannibal.
Kansas and Indiana have approved the project, as have regulators in Illinois. However, courts in Illinois have blocked the approval, ordering the issue back to state utility regulators after the state's Supreme Court rejected project approval.
The Missouri Senate is now considering a House-passed bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, to bar Grain Belt from using eminent domain to acquire farmland.