Tuesday is the deadline for public comment on the application for an “incidental take permit” by Nebraska Public Power District concerning the controversial R-Project transmission line.
The project has come under intense scrutiny because some opponents say it will cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem of the Nebraska Sandhills.
The public comment period that ends Tuesday concerns the draft environmental impact statement written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NPPD’s habitat conservation plan, migratory bird plan and restoration management plan.
“NPPD is asking for permission to ‘take’ the American burying beetle as a result of their project,” said Eliza Hines, Nebraska field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “So it assumes that the rest of the project is entirely legal and the results” of the impact to the American burying beetle are incidental to the plan.
According to Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act, “Take is defined as harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect any threatened or endangered species.” That section of the law sets criteria for allowing such permits.
“NPPD wrote the habitat conservation plan, which describes the whole project and what they’re going to do,” Hines said. “The Fish and Wildlife then writes an environmental impact statement looking at all the documentation (provided by NPPD) and saying, here are the effects to the human and natural environment in issuing this permit for the American burying beetle.”
She said Fish and Wildlife also will consider the public comments that have been submitted at regulations.gov in finalizing the environmental impact statement. Fish and Wildlife would then make a decision on the application.
Tom Kent, vice president and chief operating officer at NPPD, said the utility would adhere to the decision of Fish and Wildlife on the permit.
“With regard to the question about whether we would start construction prior to having the permit,” Kent said, “the answer is no.”
Kent said one key to moving forward is the application process.
“The timing in terms of completing the project is going to depend on us successfully completing the process to get an incidental take permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Kent said.
Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon is among those who have raised objections to the R-Project. He said he is concerned about who is calling the shots in this project and how it will impact the environment of the Sandhills. Brewer said the Southwest Power Pool, of which NPPD is a member, has indicated that a primary purpose of the R-Project is to connect with wind towers in the future.
“They’re not a Nebraska organization, but they’re forcing us into a situation where we have to live with their decisions and their routes, all in an attempt to be green,” Brewer said. “The carbon footprint is bigger than you will ever get between the building, the moving, the construction and then the life of those (wind turbines) in maintaining them than you’re ever going to get for electricity out of them.”
Brewer said wind turbines would be difficult to build and maintain in the Sandhills.
“You’re taking the most beautiful area in the world, you’re going to scatter those wind energy towers that wouldn’t be there without government subsidies,” Brewer said. “You’re going to put them in sand and you’re going to put the base to where it goes into the water table. You’re going to chop up birds of every type and kind. You’re going to affect all of this by building roads in there to bring in dozers and cranes and all these things, and you’re doing it in conjunction with this R-Line.”
Kent said NPPD will not build more roads, but will use existing roads to construct the R-Project in order to minimize harm to the environment. But Brewer said he is not convinced NPPD’s plan will protect the Sandhills.
“If you really believe in this concept of taking care of the earth and being green is the way that we should treat the planet, how can you justify in your mind doing all of this,” Brewer said. “It makes you just want to cry because it’s going to change everything about those Sandhills. You can say what you want about recapturing that land, whether it be for the R-Line or whether it be for wind energy, but in the end, you will fundamentally change those Sandhills forever.”
Many of the participants in a recent meeting in Thedford with Fish and Wildlife said they felt they were not given enough opportunity to be heard concerning the potential environmental impact of the project. The Sandhills property owners also voiced concern about the process NPPD followed in initiating the project.
“Just from a public input process, our process started in 2012,” Kent said. “We had over a two-year period, over 20 open houses, many other meetings with public and other stakeholders, and that culminated in 2014 with eight public hearings, one in each of the counties that this transmission line is proposing to go through.”
Kent said information from those hearings helped NPPD set the route.
“Going through that two-year process, with those open houses and all that public input, that’s how we narrowed that down to a route we took to the public in November 2014,” Kent said. “We said, this is the route that we believe is best to meet the needs of the project and to minimize impacts as much as we can.”
Kent said NPPD evaluated more than 2,500 comments from the public and that NPPD has and will continue to work with independent property owners.
“Our open houses were six hours in length at every location,” said Mark Becker, supervisor of corporate media and media services for NPPD. “We gave people ample time to provide us with information. We were asking for information because we always realize one thing: The landowner knows more about their property than we do.”
Kent acknowledged the challenges of the location.
“Another thing that’s important is we recognize where this is going,” Kent said. “We have to go through the Sandhills, we have to connect in Thedford to get the reliability benefits we need. So we know that area is environmentally and ecologically sensitive.”
Kent said NPPD would use methods and equipment to minimize the impact of the project on the land.
Hines said she could not pinpoint an exact date when Fish and Wildlife would make a final decision on the permit application.
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