Multistate project near missile range could be months away from approval

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said today that the Defense Department has sent her as promised a formal mitigation plan that proposes to bury sections of a New Mexico-to-Arizona transmission line near an Army missile testing range and that the project’s proponents have indicated the proposal is acceptable.

But Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, said the agency needs to conduct additional evaluation on the proposal to bury up to 5 miles of the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project line near New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. Kornze conceded a new environmental assessment (EA) might be needed and that it could be months before the project gains final approval.”We need to go out there and walk the ground” and determine the environmental impact of burying the line, said Kornze, who is attending the Western Governors’ Association annual meeting here along with Jewell and other high-ranking Interior Department officials.

“It will be months,” he added.

The news that the 515-mile-long SunZia project is months away from final approval comes after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed to drop monthslong objections to the project if sections near the range are buried underground (Greenwire, May 28).

At issue is the roughly 35-mile section of the line just north of the range — the nation’s largest military installation, covering 3,200 square miles. That section of line would not touch any of White Sands’ 2.2 million acres of withdrawn federal lands, but it would cross a section of restricted airspace referred to as the missile range’s Northern Extension Area, and the military fears that could interfere with training and weapons testing.

BLM in June 2013 released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project that included a “preferred alternative” proposing to run the line through the Northern Extension Area — a move that drew quick objections from DOD officials, who feared that the proposed route could weaken national security.

“I am hopeful that this mitigation proposal, which addresses our previous national security concerns, will be acceptable both to the Department of the Interior and to the applicant,” Hagel wrote last month in a letter to Jewell. “If so, DOD formally rescinds its objection to the Preferred Alternative Route as described in the Final [EIS], with the expectation that the Bureau of Land Management will move promptly towards issuing a Record of Decision once it completes any other necessary steps.”

Kornze said today they still do not know how much it will cost to bury the three sections.

“Our team is working with the applicants,” Jewell said during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters at the WGA annual meeting. “But we have early indications from the applicant that the proposal is workable.”

The Obama administration has made the SunZia project a top priority because it should help develop huge wind power resources in central New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, solar power in Arizona.

Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, the project proponent, has agreed to Hagel’s request to bury 5 miles of the line near the missile range.

Ian Calkins, a spokesman for SunZia Transmission, said the company is meeting with Interior officials on the project this week to discuss details.

“Overall, we’re grateful to the leaders that crafted a solution that works for the military, SunZia and New Mexico,” Calkins said in an email.

The SunZia project’s route near the Northern Extension Area has been extremely controversial.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) last month wrote letters to President Obama, Jewell and Hagel, urging them to either find another route away from the range or require the project proponents to bury the contested section of line (Greenwire, April 25.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also sent a letter to Jewell and Hagel urging the DOD secretary to work with Interior “to find and deploy” a workable solution that “provides for the rapid construction” of the proposed SunZia line (E&ENews PM, April 8).

Burying the 5-mile section north of the White Sands Missile Range is just one part of a mitigation strategy outlined roughly in Hagel’s letter to Jewell.

In addition, SunZia Transmission must agree to three other mitigation measures before DOD drops its objection, according to Hagel’s letter.

Arguably the most significant is for the project backers to agree to “appropriate hold harmless agreements,” Hagel wrote, that free the Army from any liability in the event that a errant missile or exploring ordnance destroys or damages any of the high-tower transmission lines.

Another condition of approval, Hagel wrote, is “micro-siting of the power line to avoid interference with test operations.” These measures include lowering the high-tower transmission lines in the Northern Extension Area north of the missile range or spacing out the distance of the towers in this section, officials say.

The third condition of DOD approval is “non-interference with [White Sands] operations during power line construction and maintenance,” Hagel wrote.

Hagel also wrote in his letter that SunZia Transmission “has for some time indicated acceptance” of the three mitigation measures.