SunZia Southwest Transmission Project officials do not have to have all of the rights-of-way acquired to receive a permit from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.
That was the opinion of PRC Chairman Sandy Jones and two other PRC officials who were in attendance at the public meeting last week about the proposed 520-mile project that would transport electricity from wind farms in eastern New Mexico to users in Arizona and California.
Their opinion came in response to a question by Socorro attorney Roscoe Woods.
Jones did say rights-of-way were normally secured for projects before hearings before the PRC. SunZia’s hearings before the PRC are expected to begin June 13 in Santa Fe and run through June 19.
Jones said it was obvious the project could not proceed without SunZia officials obtaining all of the rights-of-way.
In response to another question, Jones said the PRC had no authority when it came to the issue of eminent domain.
“Any rights-of-way is up to the merchant applicant,” Jones said. “… We don’t decide on any rights-of-way acquisition.”
Jones said the PRC has a very narrow focus on the location permit for any transmission line that is permitted in the state.
“The main focus is whether or not the environmental mitigation is proper,” Jones said. “The Commission does not have the authority to look at public interest.”
A PRC decision about SunZia’s application is expected by mid-September. Jones told the more than 70 in attendance that the PRC had 180 days to come to a decision from the date in which the application was filed.
The application was filed March 12.
“It has a very short fuse,” Jones said. “It is not a case that can drag on for years.”
A large majority of residents spoke out against the project. They voicedconcerns ranging from the safety of migratory birds that called the Rio Grande Valley home to the effects on human health.
Socorro County resident Billy Jack Pound asked if the fact that an overwhelming amount of people spoke out against the project would have an impact on the decision.
“Our decisions have to be based on law,” Jones said. But Jones said earlier in the meeting that the public record of the comments could be used as a tool by the PRC.
“There very well may be some things in there that me as a commissioner, hearing officer or another commissioner’s staff can actually ask and get into the litigated record,” Jones said. “It’s so important to bring it up early, so we can do something with it.”
Jones said he could not answer questions about the case specifically.
“I have been challenged before because I’ve commented on cases,” Jones said.
Public comments also could not be taken from anyone in attendance who had intervened in the case. SunZia officials were also not allowed to comment on the case.
“We’re really not here to comment,” SunZia official John Strand of Deming said. “We’re here to listen. That way we’ll know what some of the questions are, what some of the concerns are.”
He represented SunZia along with local liaison Michael Olguin Sr.
Socorro resident Paul Krehbiel asked Jones if the PRC has turned down applications for power lines in the past.
“Not since I’ve been on the Commission,” Jones responded.
“Is it possible to do so?” Krehbiel asked.
“It’s always possible if it doesn’t meet the test as laid out by statute,” Jones said.
Socorro resident Sam DuBoise was among those concerned about bird safety. He suggested putting the lines underground.
Valentine Anaya supports the use of renewable energy but was concerned the project would produce energy “that would not turn on a single light bulb in New Mexico from what I’ve been told.”
In producing energy elsewhere, he was concerned about the lines affecting the lives of birds, animals and the welfare of the people living under the lines.
“There’s a lot of ranchers who have animals that graze on the land,” Anaya said. “I hope the studies are done effectively enough to see how it will affect those animals.”
He also said he opposed the use of eminent domain.
New Mexico Tech Professor Dave Thomas shared research about the impact of power lines on migratory birds.
“The main point I want to make, if the power line does go forward it really should and must include modifications to protect the birds,” Dave Thomas said. “Do make the structures taller and make them visible where the birds can see it.”
Landowner Ronald Thomas said the line was going to be bad for his property values.
“It’s going to be bad for the whole environment in the area,” Ronald Thomas said.
Ronald Thomas said he has been helping to restore the Bosque by removing salt cedar and other invasive species.
He said cranes fly across his property during the winter.
“They’re not going to see the power lines,” Ronald Thomas said. “It’s going to kill hundreds and thousands of birds.”
Donna Hernandez cited health concerns among her reasons of opposing the project.
She cited statistics to back up a belief that cancer rates would go up for residents living close to the power lines. She also voiced concerns about the impact on farms in the area.
Socorro resident Skeeter Leard cited examples of what the project would do through a friend of hers.
She said the friend was told the route would go over her house.
“They need to know this really hurts real people,” Leard said she told her friend.
Leard is a supporter of renewable energy, and said she supports New Mexico Tech and other entitites using more renewable energy.
But she said transporting electricity over long distances “was utterly wasteful as well as insecure.”
“For so many reasons, it is time for SunZia to experience a peaceful and prompt demise,” Leard said.
Heather Lee, whose family owns property along the route, voiced concerns about the impact of the project on Native American archeological sites on her family’s property.
She voiced a concern about SunZia officials being “clueless” about what they were doing and not being honest about contacting area tribal leaders and cited examples.
Friends of the Bosque National Wildlife Refuge Executive Director Deb Caldwell joined others in voicing concerns about the impact of migratory birds as well as on the local economy.
“I think the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project will adversely affect not only the environment but the tourism and the economy it supports,” Caldwell said.
“The middle Rio Grande is one of the most important migratory corridors in western North America,” Caldwell said. “Here in Socorro County, the SunZia lines will intersect that flyway and it will go by two historic sandhill crane routes that will go within a mile on either side. There’s going to be a lot of dead birds as a result of the lines being there.”
She said if the lines were not buried or clearly marked “it’s going to kill a lot of birds.”
Caldwell cited statistics showing the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge contributed $15 million to the Socorro County economy in 2016.
Although a majority of residents spoke out against the project, the project was not without its supporters.
John Bookser with the Sierra Club said he believed most of the concerns about the safety of birds and “other critters” had been addressed.
“There is a considerable need for moving power around in this country. The stability of the grid is marginal at best,” Bookser said in addressing a concern that not enough renewable energy was available.
He said wind power generated in the eastern part of the state “needs to move to market.”
Sierra Club member Patricia Cordona also voiced support for the project, saying there was a need to find “non-invasive fuel systems that ruin our land, our air and our water.”
“We support this line because we have other issues that are as important to the birds, the land and the water,” Cordona said.
Lincoln County Commissioner Elaine Allen also spoke in favor of the project.
“I represent my constituents in Corona who have spent 10 years of their lives developing wind farms,” Allen said. “The wind farms are going to save their community. The monies generated from the wind farms that SunZia will transmit the power of will save their school. That’s a big thing. It will save their ranches, their generational ranches. I can understand, there are losses and gains for everybody in a situation like this. … The people in Corona worked very hard for the opportunity to save their land, to save their ranches and to save their community. And they are very proud of that fact.”