A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study shows the proposed SunZia energy transmission line would be harmful to the mission of White Sands Missile Range. U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
The study, which Pearce and other congressional staff were briefed on Monday, has not been publicly released. But it “well validated” the concerns of the Department of Defense, said Pearce, whose district includes Otero and Lincoln counties in New Mexico.
Ian Calkins, a spokesman for SunZia, disagreed with Pearce’s assessment of the MIT study. He issued a statement saying the study didn’t find serious problems, and the problems it found had simple mitigation measures.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who is aware of the controversy over the power lines, did not comment directly on the report or what Pearce said.
“I’m going to support whatever is going to be best for the soldiers, families and missions headquartered at Fort Bliss, White Sands Missile Range, and Holloman Air Force Base,” O’Rourke said in a statement.
The report does not mention Fort Bliss, but Pearce said the transmission line could impact Bliss. He did not give specifics.
Fort Bliss officials issued a statement Wednesday saying the post continues to oppose siting the transmission line across the Northern Extension Area of White Sands Missile Range.
“In order to maintain combat readiness, we support any option that does not threaten military training including impediments to aircraft and ground maneuver training,” the Fort Bliss statement said.
The study, Pearce said, raised three points which might harm White Sands – it would be a vertical obstruction, there was a concern of falling debris and possible electromagnetic interference.
“The last thing New Mexico wants to do is shut down 30 percent” of the missile range’s mission, which the study showed would occur, Pearce said.
“This would (also) impact the missions of Holloman Air Force base as well and we could lose them both,” he added.
Pearce said with the current climate from the White House of “slashing” the Defense Department, “the president could say, ‘Well, they’re only at 70 percent, might as well shut it down.”
SunZia’s Calkins said the MIT Lincoln Lab “reviewed White Sands’ concerns about electromagnetic interference and found little substance with it and that mitigation can be achieved by maintaining a minimum separation of sensitive electronic equipment from SunZia’s lines of 200 feet in any direction.”
It found “debris fallout from a terminated target missile might damage SunZia’s lines/towers. However, their assessment of the probability of that occurring was very low and they offered some simple mitigation to handle that issue,” Calkins said in a statement.
The issue of SunZia’s lines and towers obstructing low-flying cruise missile tests at White Sands only looked at one route, Calkins said. More work is needed on this issue, he added.
Pearce said that when he was elected to his second term, representatives of SunZia met with him to discuss the company’s plan to run the line north of Corona, N.M., then west and then down through the southern part of New Mexico and west again through Arizona to the West Coast.
“I looked at their proposed route and told them I thought they were pretty close to those restricted areas for White Sands,” Pearce said.
Pearce recommended the line be moved farther north or buried underground so the air space of the area would not be impacted.
Pearce said he understands the ranchers in northern Lincoln County are wanting to take advantage of the transmission line by having windmills on their land to possibly generate revenue,
“I’m not in opposition to the ranchers, I just want SunZia to either bury that line or move it,” Pearce said.
Last year, the Lincoln County Commission backed the ranchers and their right to use their land for the transmission line and for the development of wind farms.
Pearce said in light of the scope of the project, burying the line shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
A SunZia spokesman has contended that requiring the route to be altered would kill the project financially because another environmental study would have to be undertaken.
“There is no one more pro business than I am, I’m all about jobs,” Pearce said. “I don’t think SunZia should be making their bottom-line profit more important than national defense.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., released a statement on the study Tuesday, saying, “I encourage the Department of Defense to make the unclassified results of this study available to the public, for we have concluded that there are pragmatic solutions to allow SunZia and White Sands Missile Range to mutually exist. The administration should issue the record of decision on SunZia’s NEPA process. This is about diversifying New Mexico’s economy, lessening our dependence on federal dollars, and charting a course for a more prosperous future. SunZia should get built.”
Heinrich, in his statement, said he has long supported both the SunZia transmission project and White Sands Missile Range.
“I have consistently fought to support the state-of-the-art military training, research and development, and testing that occurs in New Mexico, and I will continue to do so. But it is also important to find common ground that does not preclude one national priority over the other when both priorities can be realized, especially when it means so many jobs for New Mexicans.”
Pearce said he wasn’t aware of any portion of the report being “top secret” and would have his staff work on publishing the MIT report on his website.
El Paso Times reporter Vic Kolenc added to this report.
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