Groups demand more time to comment on N.M.-to-Ariz. power line

The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Tucson-based Sonoran Institute requested a 60-day extension of the public comment period for the draft EIS.

Environmentalists are scrambling to submit comments on a draft federal study of the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project after the Bureau of Land Management denied formal requests for a 60-day extension of the public comment period.

BLM in May released the three-volume draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 530-mile-long power line project that has been under federal review for three years and is one of the nation's largest electricity transmission projects. The power line would have the capacity to transport as much as 4,500 megawatts of mostly renewables-generated electricity from northeast New Mexico to an electric distribution point northwest of Tucson, Ariz. Once there, it would connect to a larger grid powering metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles (E&ENews PM, May 29).

The 90-day public comment period for the draft EIS ends tomorrow.

The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Tucson-based Sonoran Institute sent a letter this month to Jesse Juen, acting director of BLM's New Mexico State Office, requesting a 60-day extension of the public comment period.

The Benson, Ariz.-based Cascabel Working Group, along with the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Audubon Rockies, also sent a letter this month to Juen requesting a 60-day extension.

Both letters raised objections to the format of public hearings on the draft EIS, specifically that the public was not allowed to comment at those meetings for the record.

Instead, "only speakers representing the BLM and project proponents were allowed to speak to the entire group in attendance. While members of the public were allowed to submit written comments, there was no opportunity for the public to make oral comments in front of all attendees and to have those comments formally recorded," according to the two-page letter signed by leaders with the Wilderness Society, NRDC and Sonoran Institute.

"Our organizations feel strongly that this narrow approach to public participation does not meet the intent" of the National Environmental Policy Act, the letter said. "The ability to make oral comments at public meetings and to hear the comments of others is a key element in understanding and effectively participating in federal actions through NEPA."

The Cascabel Working Group-led letter requests BLM to hold "public hearings that allow stakeholders to question agency representatives. The public expects and deserves this from federal agencies."

Both letters also state that the more than 2,000-page draft EIS is too much to digest in 90 days.

"Because of the scope and complexity of the [draft] EIS and the substantial and unparalleled ecological resources it affects, stakeholders from across the region want the fullest opportunity to determine its deficiencies, understand potential long-term impacts, and provide commentary," according to the Cascabel Working Group letter. "This requires careful, extensive, and time-consuming review."

But BLM officials note that over the three years the project has been under federal review, the agency has held 22 public hearings and opened the project to a total of 255 days of public comment.

A draft EIS is usually open for public comment for 45 days, according to an agency statement, and BLM held 10 public meetings for the draft document.

"If our state director believed there were substantial comments that had yet to be given to us, he would have granted an extension," said Donna Hummel, a BLM spokeswoman in Santa Fe, N.M. "We're still able to receive comments, and those will still be considered as long as they can until we have to make some final decisions."

But the agency has timelines and a responsibility to be fair to the project proponent, Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, and it is time to move on, Hummel said.

"We get that there's probably some folks that no matter how many or how few days they had to comment it would still not be enough," she said. "This is a project that some people are never going to like or want, so delaying the project is a logical way to them to make the project go away."

Years of controversy

The concern about the draft EIS is the latest controversy surrounding the project, which the Obama administration has identified as a priority. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed last year to accelerate the federal permitting process for SunZia and seven other transmission projects in 12 states (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2011).

The SunZia line -- which could carry enough electricity to power more than 1.5 million homes -- is also viewed as critical to meeting renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in both New Mexico, where 20 percent of generation must come from renewables by 2020, and Arizona, which must meet a 15 percent RPS by 2025. Dozens of solar, geothermal and wind power projects are under development in the two states, and proponents say the new line would transport power from remote generation sites to major load centers.

But BLM's "preferred alternative" outlined in the draft EIS is a significantly altered version of the original 2009 proposal, adding about 70 miles to the original route in an effort to move the line away from sensitive wildlife habitat and a nearby Army missile testing range in southwest New Mexico.

BLM also amended the line's route in the preferred alternative to stay within existing utility corridors as much as possible. Under the agency's preferred option, more than half the line's route, or 296 miles, would run parallel to existing or designated utility corridors, with 220 miles running parallel to existing transmission lines.

Environmentalists, however, are concerned that the project would cross the Rio Grande and would involve siting transmission towers along the San Pedro River Valley in southern Arizona. The valley is an important layover for more than 4 million migratory birds each year and provides habitat for deer, bobcats and mountain lions.

The San Pedro also is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and some fear the towers and lines, if not properly sited, could interrupt that flow.

Critics, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), have publicly urged BLM to route the line so that it avoids the San Pedro River Valley.

Sierra Club has urged people to write BLM and oppose the power line project and ask the agency to adopt the "no action" alternative. The group's Grand Canyon chapter's website includes an emailed message to BLM asking the agency to not permit "this project to be build on our public lands."

Alex Daue, a renewable energy associate with the Wilderness Society, said the group was still working to finalize and submit comments to BLM by tomorrow's deadline.