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Feds clear hurdle for R-Project  

Federal and NPPD officials “have steadfastly ignored the many concerns from hundreds of citizens and the mountains of hard evidence and research presented to them,” said [Sen. Tom] Brewer, whose 43rd Legislative District covers much of the route. “Nebraskans should be outraged at the careless way in which the most beautiful part of our state will now be destroyed so a handful of wealthy (wind-power) investors can make money off an incredibly wasteful government program.”

Credit:  By Todd Von Kampen | North Platte Telegraph | www.nptelegraph.com ~~

A five-year legal odyssey for the proposed R-Project power line has reached an apparent climax with federal approval of plans to protect an endangered insect along its Sandhills route.

Nebraska Public Power District expects to start building the 225-mile-long, 345-kilovolt transmission line this fall now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has granted an “incidental take permit” affecting the American burying beetle. An incidental take permit allows private parties to proceed with lawful activity that results in harm to an endangered or protected species.

The federal agency’s “record of decision,” issued June 12, declined to further hold up the R-Project over concerns about affected cultural resources or migratory birds.

Objections in those areas “do not provide any new or substantive information” to justify extending Fish and Wildlife’s environmental review, the agency’s decision said.

The agency generally endorsed NPPD’s plans – outlined in Fish and Wildlife’s final environmental impact statement in February – to minimize impacts on other species and such “cultural resources” as Native American burial grounds and the Oregon-California and Mormon trails.

Fish and Wildlife’s final decision referred to potential future “wind farms” – the greatest concern of Sandhills residents – by saying it’s “reasonably foreseeable” that such projects could require federal scrutiny before they could be built.

Federal officials, however, “cannot speculate as to what may be required for future wind development,” the June 12 decision said.

NPPD spokesman Mark Becker welcomed the long-awaited Fish and Wildlife decision to allow the $400 million project.

“Again, there are a lot of conditions we’ll have to adhere to” in minimizing the line’s various impacts, he said. “We’re sure Fish and Wildlife will be monitoring what we do and how we do it.”

But state Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon condemned Fish and Wildlife’s decision as ensuring “even more harm to this singularly unique place in the world, as well as the people who will be forced to be neighbors to these destructive monstrosities.”

Federal and NPPD officials “have steadfastly ignored the many concerns from hundreds of citizens and the mountains of hard evidence and research presented to them,” said Brewer, whose 43rd Legislative District covers much of the route.

“Nebraskans should be outraged at the careless way in which the most beautiful part of our state will now be destroyed so a handful of wealthy (wind-power) investors can make money off an incredibly wasteful government program.”

The R-Project line will start at NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station south of Sutherland, run north over Interstate 80 and the two Platte River branches into northwest Lincoln County, then turn east to meet U.S. Highway 83 south of Stapleton.

It’ll generally parallel the highway to a point east of Thedford, where it will turn east and run through northern Thomas, Blaine, Loup, Garfield and Wheeler counties to a planned new substation southwest of Clearwater. NPPD also plans to expand a substation at the R-Project’s bend near Thedford.

It’s not yet clear, Becker said, whether construction crews will build the line in one unbroken stretch from Gerald Gentleman or work on several different pieces at once.

Forbes Brothers Timberline Inc. of Rapid City, S.D., received the project’s $265 million construction contract on Jan. 10. Its workers and NPPD employees, Becker said, will begin training immediately on satisfying the federal permit’s expectations.

For example, “you can’t just pull in with a truck and go across somebody’s field,” he said. “In our easements, we said where we’ll be going (with the line). We have to adhere to that.”

Becker said NPPD has obtained construction easements from landowners along 78 percent of the route. The utility has not yet launched any eminent domain proceedings and still hopes to work out easements on the remaining land, he said.

But “we’ll probably have some condemnation along the way,” he added.

NPPD officials have long said the R-Project will improve the reliability of the state’s electrical grid and meet the publicly governed utility’s commitments to the multistate Southwest Power Pool.

Its now-approved plan to mitigate construction losses in American burying beetle populations calls for capturing beetles found during construction.

They would be relocated to a 600-acre site in Blaine County that NPPD plans to buy and develop as a substitute beetle habitat. The utility now is moving to finalize that purchase, Becker said.

NPPD also plans to install “spiral bird flight diverters” and reflective “avian flight diverters” to warn away sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes where the line crosses the migratory “Central Flyway.”

Sandhills opponents, who have questioned the diverters’ effectiveness, wanted Fish and Wildlife to more fully explore the R-Project’s risk to migratory birds, especially the whooping crane.

But the agency’s June 12 decision forecast only “short-term, low-intensity effects” on whoopers from the power lines. If greater damage to the species are observed, it said, NPPD has agreed to seek to amend its permit and develop a mitigation plan for the rare birds.

The agency’s final environmental impact statement, released in February, acknowledged “moderate-to-high or high-intensity and long-term indirect impacts” on five cultural resources along the R-Project’s Lincoln County route.

Becker reiterated

NPPD’s commitment not to plant towers on or next to deeply cut migrant-trail “swales” near Gerald Gentleman and north of the North Platte River.

Other affected “cultural resources” include a Native American archaeological site in the Birdwood Creek valley, a historic ranch along U.S. 83 north of Stapleton and St. John’s Lutheran Church near Brewster.

NPPD understands the fragility of the Sandhills and “will take the necessary steps to preserve (the sites) as much as we possibly can and work with the landowners and the historic groups” as construction proceeds, Becker said.

If a particular site needs restoration after the line’s completion, he said, NPPD will do the restoration work for the owners unless they prefer to do it themselves.

“We want as little disturbance as possible, but the biggest thing is the restoration activities,” he said. “In some cases, that will take a number of years.”

Source:  By Todd Von Kampen | North Platte Telegraph | www.nptelegraph.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments to query/wind-watch.org.

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