U.S. military officials say part of the “preferred” route for a $1 billion-plus high-voltage transmission project proponents say is critical to New Mexico’s renewable energy future is a threat to national security and must be changed. The objections to the route across the northern reaches of the legendary White Sands Missile Range could well kill the project. Or, if it goes ahead, a state military planning group says it could be the beginning of the end for WSMR, which has an estimated annual economic impact of $834 million. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which proposed the route to which the military objects, says if the SunZia power line process can’t move ahead soon, the project is in danger of being scuttled. The alignment in question, identified in the BLM’s environmental study as the preferred route for the inter-state transmission line, would compromise missile range operations and “presents an unacceptable risk to national security,” the Defense Department says.
Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall strongly objected to the route in a March 19 letter to the Interior Department. That’s the parent agency of the BLM, which analyzed the alternative routes for the SunZia project in a draft environmental impact statement published last year. “It should be clearly understood that no other location exists in the United States where it is possible to conduct flight tests of missile systems with these footprint requirements,” Kendall said in the letter to Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes.
Moving ‘goal posts’
BLM officials, however, said trying to identify a path suitable to White Sands has been a four-year ordeal that involved evaluating multiple possible routes to address military concerns, with their agency unable, in BLM State Director Jesse Juen’s words, “to pin the goal posts down.” The BLM expects to release a final environment impact statement in June, with a modification proposing to move the preferred route slightly north of the draft EIS version to address White Sands’ concerns about a launch site. Juen called it a compromise in the “best interest of all players.” “I’m at the point now we need to make a decision, because I believe we will lose the project if we don’t pin this goal post down now,” Juen said. Proposed in 2008 by a five-company partnership known as SunZia Transmission LLC, SunZia would be 500-mile-long high-voltage transmission system linking Lincoln County in New Mexico with Pinal County in southeastern Arizona. Supporters say one of its primary purposes would be to deliver renewable energy produced in this state by wind and solar farms to Western markets. It would also create hundreds of construction jobs. The transmission line, however, would stretch about 45 miles over an area outside the missile range proper called the White Sands northern extension, or “call-up,” area. The area is used for range operations when needed on a contract basis with private landowners. It is considered restricted airspace when it is in call-up status.
Threat to line itself
In a letter to Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, Kendall said a transmission line there would “preclude” WSMR from testing air and missile defense and other weapons systems. A missile could “catastrophically fail” and rain debris on the power line. He asked Hayes to reopen the environmental study process to consider two alternatives, including a “preferred” DOD route that runs outside the northern extension area. Last August, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Ferrari, then-commander at White Sands, said the preferred route in the draft EIS does not meet safety requirements and would split an instrument site and launch site that is within two miles of the route. Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack followed up with similar comments in December, and also requested analysis of the routes outside the extension area.
A White Sands spokesman said Thursday it would be “inappropriate” to comment on SunZia because of “ongoing study and deliberation.” Earlier in the week, though, representatives of the New Mexico Military Base Planning Commission said that although they support the SunZia project, they have serious concerns about how it would affect White Sands. The group advises the governor on how to ensure the continued presence of military bases because of their enormous impact on the state’s economy.
Could lose the base
“We are simply concerned that in building it, they not encroach on White Sands, because White Sands will pay a price. New Mexico will pay a price in the future,” member Sherman McCorkle said. “Once missions leave, they are not going to come back.” SunZia spokesman Ian Calkins said the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse – established to streamline energy projects affecting military installations – indicated in July 2011 that it had no objections to SunZia. He said the issue is “not in our hands right now.” “We have confidence in the BLM they will be able to make a decision that works for the military and also works for SunZia,” he said. The BLM, which administers much of the land in the alignment proposed by the developer, was designated the lead federal agency to analyze SunZia’s environment impacts, conducting many public hearings and meetings with stakeholders. The draft EIS was published last May, saying the preferred route maximizes use of utility corridors and minimizes impacts on sensitive resources, residential and commercial properties and “to military operations within the restricted airspace north” of the missile range.
Juen, in an interview, displayed maps with various routes that were considered to address White Sands’ issues the past four years. The original route would generally have followed U.S. 380 across the extension area – one he said White Sands initially felt “very comfortable” with – in August 2009. In subsequent months, though, the BLM twice expanded its study area in deference to White Sands, once to consider running the project east of White Sands south to the Las Cruces area. Those routes there were rejected by the Department of the Army, concerned in part about impacts on missile launches, Juen said. In 2010, when there seemed to be general agreement by all parties, including the military, on the preferred alignment eventually adopted in the draft EIS – about 27 miles north of U.S. 380 – the agency expanded the study area again, he said, to study two alternatives outside the extension area. They would have gone northwest to Belen, then south through the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Juen said that would cost Sevilleta its national refuge status. Juen said Route 2B, one of those suggested by DOD’s Kendall, was not pursued by the BLM because it has much less public land, more rugged terrain and more homes. In addition, SunZia told the Interior Department that adding another year to the review process could kill the project, he said.
DOD route problematic
The DOD proposal, Juen said, has never been formally made to the BLM. That path, though, would be problematic, passing close to a wilderness study area and Forest Service land with protected owls and other resources, and again jeopardize the project because of the additional time needed for review. The state’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce have been monitoring the developments. Saying WSMR has a “diverse and important mission,” Udall said he has urged the cooperating agencies to work together for a “timely and fair resolution concerning WSMR and SunZia we can all benefit from.” Heinrich said the siting process has been “deliberate, transparent and comprehensive. I am excited that this proposal is on the verge of moving from the planning phase to actual construction.” Pearce’s office said the congressman has monitored the project from the beginning and “will continue to do so as the EIS moves forward.” Pending approval of the final EIS, the developer plans to begin the permitting process in both states next year and start construction in 2015, Calkins said. Journal staff writer Charles Brunt contributed to this story.
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