A group of state lawmakers is seeking to delay a decision regarding a controversial power line upgrade in southwestern Connecticut by the state Siting Council amid concerns the council communicated outside of meetings with the power companies that proposed the upgrade.

The legislators also are concerned the council did not receive input from varied sources when its members made a decision to bury part of the line in Fairfield County, but to leave the part extending from Milford to Middletown above ground. Lawmakers want as much of the line as possible to be buried because of possible health concerns.

The lawmakers, led by state Sen. Len Fasano, R-East Haven, sent a letter to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s office earlier this month, asking Blumenthal to prevent the Siting Council from making any decision on the matter. The council is due to make a decision on whether to approve the project April 7, according to its Web site.

“Our letter outlines a series of actions on the part of the council that clearly demonstrate a failure to comply with Connecticut law,” Fasano said. “We firmly believe that there is evidence that the Siting Council knowingly engaged in ex parte communication with the power industry in regards to the possibility of burying the power lines.”

The United Illuminating Co. and The Connecticut Light & Power Co. have been working on plans for about two years to put the line between Middletown and Norwalk. The line would help provide more reliable power to southwest Connecticut, where power transmission currently does not meet national reliability standards.

“Because southwest Connecticut’s transmission system serving that quadrant no longer meets reliability standards [we need to add more capability],” said Marcia Wellman, spokeswoman for United Illuminating, in an interview last year.

But residents and officials in some New Haven County communities, where the $600 million plan calls for the power lines to be above ground, are concerned about possible health risks from exposure to electric and magnetic fields, which are produced wherever electricity is in use or transmitted – a concern that is shared by many lawmakers.

The lawmakers’ letter specifically targets the Siting Council’s decision to instate best management practices for electro-magnetic fields – the fields radiate from high-voltage power lines that some believe can cause cancer with continued exposure. Legislation passed last year requires high-voltage lines to be buried wherever possible. The council determined, however, that only 24 miles of the 69-mile line could be buried underground because of technical issues.

But the lawmakers don’t have a clear understanding of the process that brought the Siting Council to its decision on burying the line, according to the council’s Executive Director Derek Phelps.

“The concerns articulated by Sen. Fasano and his colleagues are, regrettably, based on several false impressions and some clear misunderstandings,” Phelps wrote in a statement. “For example, the [electro-magnetic field best management practices] were actually a work product of a great deal of input from a variety of sources, including staff from the state department of health and others.”

Significant Points

The lawmakers also cited concerns about what they called sudden changes in opinion.

“The Siting Council’s own experts, KEMA [a consulting firm hired by the council], convincingly argue that additional power lines could be buried, then, following a short break, completely recant that argument,” Fasano said. “I find it curious at best, and disturbing at worst, that this organization after months of research and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent totally flip-flops during a half-hour lunch break with little to no explanation. “To me, something else is at play here and that is why we are asking that the Attorney General’s Office get involved, investigate and take immediate action against the council.”

But KEMA repeatedly indicated that its earlier suspicions about the possible feasibility of putting more of the line underground were preliminary and would need to be corroborated, Phelps wrote in his statement. The firm modified its recommendations after receiving that data.

Phelps’ statement on behalf of the council also said an administrative appeal, rather than an injunction, would be the proper recourse for the lawmakers.

Blumenthal responded to the lawmakers’ request last week.

“I share these concerns and sympathize with their goals, and we will very carefully evaluate whether any action should be taken,” he said in a prepared statement. “The points they raise are serious and significant. I have advocated placing as much of this line underground as possible and we will examine whether injunctive action is possible and appropriate.”