A group of ranchers and business owners failed to convince the Nebraska Power Review Board to keep a 220-mile-long transmission line out of the Sandhills.
After listening to a full day of testimony – and about 15 minutes of deliberation – the five-member board unanimously approved an application submitted by the Nebraska Public Power District.
“I think it’s a tragedy for Nebraska,” said Robert Price, a Burwell rancher. “The Sandhills deserves to be protected, and it’s going to have challenges in the future.”
Price was one of nine ranchers and business owners who were granted standing by the board last month. They were allowed to present their case against the power line project at a hearing Friday at the State Office Building.
NPPD wants to build the 345,000-volt transmission line crossing Antelope, Blaine, Garfield, Holt, Lincoln, Logan, Loup, McPherson, Rock, Thomas and Wheeler counties. An existing substation would be upgraded near Thedford, and a new substation would be built in eastern Wheeler County as part of the $361.5 million “R” Project.
Now that the Columbus-based utility has preliminary authority to build the transmission line, NPPD plans to hold eight public meetings in November in the affected area to gather more comments on its preferred and alternate routes. Negotiations with landowners could begin within 30 days after the meetings. NPPD would like to complete the project in 2018.
“We presented the facts on what the Power Review Board has jurisdiction over, and I think we proved the need for the project,” NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said after the vote.
Barry Geweke, an Ord attorney who represented nine clients who opposed the project, argued that the transmission line, if built, would destroy the fragile ecosystem of grasses and dunes. He urged the board to deny the application and make NPPD find an alternate route.
“This is more than ‘not in my backyard.’ This is probably the most unspoiled natural resource we have in Nebraska,” Geweke said before calling six witnesses.
Lincoln attorney Kile Johnson, representing NPPD, objected to much of the testimony offered by those witnesses about the routes chosen by NPPD or the potential impact on the environment, their livelihoods and threatened or endangered species.
He said their testimony is important but should not be considered by the board because it must follow specific criteria spelled out in state law, including public interest and necessity, economics and feasibility and unnecessary duplication.
Tim Texell, the power board’s executive director, said the board has no authority to tell an applicant what route to follow. He allowed some witness testimony into the hearing record in case the board’s decision is appealed in court.
Lynn Ballagh, another Burwell rancher, said he was disappointed in the board’s decision.
“I don’t understand how you can make a decision like that without being on the ground and seeing the route,” he said after the hearing.
Geweke, the attorney, told the board that the power line would be difficult and very costly to maintain, especially in winter, when blizzards hit the Sandhills.
Johnson, representing NPPD, told the board that NPPD, as a member of the regional transmission network called the Southwest Power Pool, was directed by that group to build the transmission line to improve reliability and to serve future wind energy projects.