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The Coastal Habitat Alliance virtually certain to take PUC to court

Coastal Habitat Alliance, or CHA, founder and environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn said Friday that he is “virtually certain” they will take the Public Utility Commission of Texas to District Court in Travis County.

The coalition wants a hearing to examine the potential impacts from the transmission line to coastal migratory birds, bats, butterflies and other species.

On Wednesday, the Public Utility Commission denied the conservation group intervener status in the wind turbine transmission line case in Kenedy County. The coalition of 11 Texas-based and national organizations are working to be included as a participant in the hearings for the 345 kv transmission line through the Laguna Madre coastal region.

The two PUC commissioners who voted to reject CHA’s standing, Julie Parsley and Barry Smitherman, cited agency precedents of only allowing property owners within 500 feet of a proposed line standing.

Chairman Paul Hudson was the lone dissenter, supporting the public’s interest in hearing the environmental impact of the power lines.

“Traditionally, in cases involving transmission lines, property ownership is the standard,” said Terry Hadley, spokesperson for the PUC.

Intervener status gives a group or person the ability to participate in contested case hearings.

“This decision is legally wrong,” said Blackburn. “Public interest groups with definable interest in the development of a transmission line should not be excluded from the process simply because they are not property owners.”

He said that other state agencies and the federal government grant intervener status, based on things other than property ownership.

Blackburn said that there is legal support for a determination that groups with demonstrated economic, recreational, or environmental interests that will be impacted by a transmission line, to participate at the hearing.

The transmission line would extend for 21 miles east and west across the county, to serve the 600-turbine industrial wind project.

“This is really bad for wind siting,” said Elyse Yates, spokesperson for the alliance. “This is the most active migratory pathway in North America. Turbines in the pathway would be problematic. Lines that connect the project to the grid would mean the clearing of habitat for endangered species.”

Yates said that almost all of the members of the alliance are positive and passionately in support of wind energy. The group supports the responsible siting of any industrial installations, with participation.

“All developments within the coastal area should undergo an environmental review process to ensure the integrity of our coastal waters, ” said Blackburn.

“Siting is paramount,” Yates added. She noted that wind projects in West Texas are located in a very different habitat than the coastal wetlands. “Wind energy at the cost of degradation to habitat is so bad,” she added.

The PUC has no precedent for permitting and policies surrounding the new energy technology. Wind issues, the danger to birds and sensitive ecosystems need to be heard, and the PUC has the ability to hear concerns, said Yates.

“This 345 kV transmission line should be thoroughly reviewed and all environmental impacts related to it should be fully explored and carefully considered by the PUC,” said Blackburn.

“CHA members have a unique and valuable connection to the area affected by this transmission line. By refusing the participation of experts who have come to the table to offer their experience and assistance, the PUC is denying itself and our state the benefit of their knowledge and insight.”

“Safeguarding one of the world’s most unique natural habitats and preserving thousands of migratory birds – many of them government-protected species – is clearly in the best interest of our state. This ruling rejects some of the best resources available from helping the Commission act in the public interest,” added Blackburn.

Endangered species found in the Laguna Madre region are the peregrine falcon, ocelot, pygmy owl and whooping crane.

The CHA formed to protect the migratory flyway of the Texas Gulf Coast and related coastal habitat from the ecological effects of building the infrastructure to the wind project. Millions of birds, including raptors, shorebirds, wading birds and newtropical songbirds migrate twice a year to breeding grounds.

Alliance members include the American Bird Conservancy, Armstrong Ranch, Audubon Outdoor Club of Corpus Christi, Coastal Bend Audubon Society, Frontera Audubon Society, Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association, Houston Audubon Society, King Ranch, Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, Matagorda Bay Foundation, and the Travis Audubon Society.

By Michele Angél

Rio Grande Guardian

19 October 2007