Feb. 17, 2010

Wolves should not trigger additional EIS for powerline, state says

By Marcy Stamper

A review of the PUD’s environmental analysis of its Methow transmission line by a state environmental specialist concludes that new information about fire hazards and confirmed wolf sightings does not justify a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

The primary concern posed by the powerline route is that it could set a precedent for future power corridors in Washington “that would unduly focus environmental impacts on state trust lands and focus the costs on all taxpayers,” wrote the specialist in her August report. The documents were provided to the Methow Valley News this month as part of a public records request for the Department of Natural     Resources’ review of the Okanogan County Public Utility District’s easement application.

While new information can trigger a supplemental EIS if it is likely it will cause significant adverse environmental impacts, the recent findings do not appear to support this claim, according to Patricia Betts, State Environmental Policy Act program manager for the DNR.

Many of the concerns about invasive species and fire risk voiced by DNR’s review team could be addressed by mitigations in an easement agreement negotiated with the PUD, wrote Betts.

Once the PUD maps specific roads for the project, any increased risk of wildfire or invasive weeds caused by uncontrolled access could be addressed by the new access roads themselves, because the roads could help the agency fight fires more effectively by serving as fire breaks and decreasing response time, wrote Betts.

DNR can block these roads at other times to control “rogue recreational access.” In fact, recreation is likely to increase in the area regardless of whether the transmission line is built, wrote Betts.

“The recent discovery of gray wolves in Okanogan County is unlikely to require additional SEPA analysis,” wrote Betts. While the EIS was completed in 2006 when biologists had not confirmed existing populations, the EIS did note that, “remote habitats can be used for dispersal and denning,” she wrote. It also suggested wolves “are not likely to use the transmission line area because of the already existing level of human disturbance.”

Betts suggested that DNR could ask a state wildlife biologist to assess the possible impact of the transmission line and new roads on wolves to help the agency determine whether a supplemental EIS would be necessary.

Acknowledging that the Pateros-Twisp powerline route, which traverses 12 miles of DNR land, could set a precedent for future power corridors, Betts noted that the EIS had presented “other reasonable alternatives,” some of which would reduce impact to all Washington citizens and the environment. Betts specifically mentioned alternative No. 4, the Loup Loup corridor, as “probably less damaging to the environment” although “a bit more expensive for the PUD.


Anti-condemnation bill dies in committee

A bill that could have interfered with the PUD’s ability to acquire state land for the Methow transmission line failed to get enough support to move out of committee last week.

The proposed legislation would have prohibited cities, counties, school districts and entities such as public utility districts from condemning lands held in trust by the state to fund schools. In her presentation to the Senate Committee on Ways & Means, Sen. Karen Fraser (D-Olympia), a co-sponsor of the bill, explained that the legislation would have required local governments to negotiate for the use of state trust lands through a purchase or land swap, rather than allow them to condemn what she called Washington’s “dowry from statehood.”

The Okanogan County Public Utility District filed condemnation proceedings against the Department of Natural Resources to acquire easements on 12 miles of their land for the powerline last fall.

A DNR department supervisor testified that the agency supported the bill because a prohibition is appropriate to the broad range of public benefits provided by the trust lands, among them schools, recreation and wildlife habitat.

David Womack, president of the Okanogan County PUD Board of Commissioners, testified against the bill, saying that the proposed legislation was an attempt to stop the Pateros-Twisp transmission line. The PUD has been working on the project for 10 years and submitted an application to DNR in October 2008, and the project has been “fully vetted and adjudicated through the courts,” he said.

Others who spoke in opposition to the bill included a representative of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association and Energy Northwest, which is seeking to site a wind farm on public land.