Nebraska Public Power District remains committed to building its R-Project transmission line where it’s planned to go, the utility’s top executive said Thursday after a Colorado federal judge imposed a legal roadblock.
That includes building the 345-kilovolt line straight north from Gerald Gentleman Station and over historic Oregon Trail “swale” ruts – a major factor in the judge’s ruling.
“Nothing’s changed from a factual basis to change our decision at this point” on where the line should run, NPPD CEO Tom Kent said in a conference call with reporters.
“From what we’ve seen, we’re in the best place from a utilities standpoint,” he added.
U.S. District Judge William Martinez Wednesday vacated a June 2019 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental permit for the R-Project, listing questions over its impact on O’Fallon’s Bluff near Sutherland as his first reason.
He said the agency also failed to examine possible environmental and historic preservation impacts of an Antelope County wind farm now being built that plans to tie into the 225-mile line.
Martinez’s 116-page ruling handed a victory to four entities that sued last July over the agency’s decision: the Oregon-California Trails Association, the Western Nebraska Resources Council and the Hanging H East and Whitetail Farms East ranches between Paxton and Sutherland.
It’s not clear whether NPPD could or would appeal the ruling, Kent said, because the utility is an “intervenor” in the case on the side of Fish and Wildlife.
The Denver judge said Fish and Wildlife’s order granting the permit didn’t review possible routes to avoid O’Fallon’s Bluff, despite saying in its final environmental impact statement that running electrical lines over it would have “a long-term, high-intensity indirect (visual, auditory and atmospheric) effect.”
Thousands of wagons on the Oregon-California Trail crossed the bluff from 1843 to 1866, cutting deep dips that remain today. It parallels Interstate 80 to the south between Sutherland and Hershey.
The “incidental take permit” that Martinez overturned primarily addresses NPPD’s plans to mitigate long-term losses of endangered American burying beetles during R-Project construction.
But federal law also requires the agency to look at a project’s compliance with all other relevant federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, the judge said.
When it came to the O’Fallon’s Bluff ruts, Fish and Wildlife “seems not to have considered” alternative routes running away from the bluff instead of over it, Martinez said.
In his Thursday conference call, Kent said NPPD did consider alternatives but decided the proposed route “was the best route to address all the issues we looked at, including the cultural resources impacts.”
But neither the agency nor NPPD would discuss alternatives to crossing O’Fallon’s Bluff with local and state historic preservation officials, said Jim Griffin, director and curator of the Lincoln County Historical Museum.
Because of that, he said, the museum refused to sign an April 29 “programmatic agreement” that “no further work will be done to resolve any adverse effects to historic properties” from the line.
“We did address them, and they refused to listen to us,” Griffin said.
He attended the agency’s July 25, 2018, public hearing in North Platte at which several witnesses urged Fish and Wildlife to require that the R-Project route avoid O’Fallon’s Bluff.
Lisa Burke, executive director of the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau, said she was “pleasantly surprised” that local objections over O’Fallon’s Bluff made a difference.
“My gut told me big business would end up winning,” said Burke, co-author with assistant director Muriel Clark of a letter entered into the 2018 hearing record. “I’m glad they didn’t.”
Trevor Jones, director and CEO of History Nebraska and Nebraska’s state historic preservation officer, noted the importance of O’Fallon’s Bluff and similar Mormon Trail swale ruts north of Sutherland.
“The State Historic Preservation Office supports the preservation of these resources and will continue to work through the federal review and compliance process to advocate for historic properties as new options are identified,” Jones said.
Though he vacated Fish and Wildlife’s permit, Martinez mostly sided with the agency on dueling studies over potential threats to burying beetles, whooping cranes, least terns and piping plovers along the R-Project route itself.
But the agency sidestepped evaluating either environmental or historic impacts from the Thunderhead Wind Energy Center southwest of Neligh, the judge added.
The 108-turbine site lies east of the line’s planned eastern terminus at NPPD’s Holt County Substation, which is located near Clearwater and the Wheeler-Antelope county line.
Martinez said developers’ plans to connect Thunderhead with the R-Project line required Fish and Wildlife to “properly evaluate” the wind farm’s possible environmental and historic impacts on Antelope County. It did not, he wrote.
State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon welcomed Wednesday’s ruling, even though Martinez mostly rejected arguments echoed by Sandhills constituents who fear the R-Project will spawn hundreds of wind turbines on their fragile land.
“If you can’t bring the power to the wind farms, I don’t know if the wind farms will continue to build,” Brewer said Thursday.
“If (the ruling) stops this, I’m particularly happy. I don’t care how they do it – just that they do it.”
With its ability to proceed at least suspended, Kent said, NPPD will seek to store and secure construction supplies at depots it set up under an agreement between both sides in the lawsuit.
He said the deal also let NPPD begin preparing to upgrade its Thedford and Clearwater substations, along with clearing vegetation and some other site preparation along the route.
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