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Judge delivers blow to controversial Sand Hills transmission line project

LINCOLN – A federal judge has delivered a blow to a controversial project to extend a high-voltage, electrical transmission line through Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Martinez revoked a federal permit that would have allowed the Nebraska Public Power District to kill or severely disturb the endangered American burying beetle as a consequence of building its R-Line project. The 225-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line would extend from near Sutherland, northward to Thedford, and then eastward to near Clearwater.

Tom Kent, the CEO of NPPD, said Thursday that the ruling will delay but not stop the project.

“The project is still very important to the people of Nebraska and critical to improve the reliability of the electrical system,” Kent said.

But State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who has opposed the R-Line Project and wind farm development, disagreed. He said the delay will add additional costs. If it’s delayed long enough and subsidies for wind development run out, Brewer said there may be no reason to build the $400 million project.

“I think the R-Line has to be rerouted if they have any hope for it,” the senator said.

A year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave approval to NPPD’s “incidental take permit,” which laid out the utilities’ plan to mitigate the impact on the endangered beetle and cultural sites in the path of the transmission line. The approval had opened the way for construction to begin.

But a lawsuit was filed by a Colorado landowner that claimed, among other things, that the wildlife agency had failed to adequately address effects on the endangered whooping crane and had ignored the latest study on the number of cranes that might be killed in collisions with the R-Line.

NPPD had estimated that the potential for such fatal collisions was so low – .016 cranes were likely to die over 50 years – that the whooping crane did not have to be included in its incidental take permit application. The utility, though, said it planned to install markers on the R-Line to make it more visible to the huge birds.

In his 116-page ruling, the judge said that many of the arguments raised by opponents of the project were of the “see what sticks” variety and that the Fish and Wildlife Service had used the best scientific information available in overruling the objections about the whooping crane.

But Martinez said the wildlife agency had failed to adequately consider the effect on O’Fallon’s Bluff, a segment of the Oregon and California Trails near Sutherland, and had excluded the potential effect of additional wind farm development in Antelope County.

Thus, the approval granted a year ago was revoked.

Kent said that he wasn’t immediately sure if NPPD would have to submit more information to the Fish and Wildlife Service and that lawyers were still reviewing the ruling. He said that the utility had provided several alternative routes in the O’Fallon’s Bluff area, where Oregon Trail ruts are still visible.

Kent added that some construction work had begun on two substations related to the R-Line and that some trees and vegetation had been removed in its path, but all of that work is now on hold.