BPA asked to clarify transmission line plans

Army Corps of Engineers seeks better justification for elimination of some routes

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: March 28, 2012, 7:15 PM

 
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Army Corps of Engineers memo to BPA

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Public scrutiny of the Bonneville Power Administration’s proposal to build a transmission line through Clark and Cowlitz counties is well known. But as the BPA crafts detailed plans for the 500-kilovolt line, it’s also faced tough questions from one of the agencies responsible for permitting the project.

Last fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked the federal power marketing agency for better justification in eliminating some alternate routes — including a citizen-proposed route some residents have rallied around for more than a year. The Army Corps’ requests were detailed in an October memo made public this week by the local groups who have pushed for the so-called “Grey Line.”

The questions may not change the eventual outcome of the project. Both the BPA and the Corps described them as “routine” for planning something as large as a transmission line. But the document sheds light on the back-and-forth that goes into what will become the project’s draft environmental impact statement, due this spring.

“They’ve been very responsive, and we’ll continue to work with them,” said Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman with the Corps’ Seattle District. BPA has not yet filed a permit application, she said.

BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said the Corps’ questions and suggestions will be reflected in the environmental impact statement when it’s released.

Terry Constance chairs Another Way BPA, which has supported putting the line away from urban areas. He hopes the Corps’ involvement will lead to a different outcome than what BPA has proposed, he said.

“It just needs to be done right,” Constance said.

The I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project would put a new 500-kilovolt transmission line — carried by 150-foot towers — through Southwest Washington in an effort to ease a strained Northwest power grid. BPA officials have said the line could cost anywhere from $317 million to $407 million, depending on which route is chosen. The line would stretch between Castle Rock and Troutdale, Ore., along one of four main route options. All four would cross the Columbia River at Camas.

The project has run into stiff opposition from citizen groups with health and property concerns. Some have urged BPA to locate the line on existing federal right of way, which would send it into the Vancouver urban area. Others have continued to advocate for the Grey Line, which would put the transmission line farther north and east than any of BPA’s options.

In its October memo, the Corps questioned whether impacts to bull trout and spotted owls — which BPA had cited in its initial dismissal of the Grey Line — were enough to justify scrapping the idea. Corps project managers Steve Manlow and Danette Guy noted all of the project’s proposed routes have at least some effect on Endangered Species Act-listed animals.

“If impact to ESA-listed species is a primary screening criterion, it needs to be applied to all project alternatives equally,” they wrote. “Please explain why this alternative was eliminated, and others were not. …”

BPA reconsidered the Grey Line later last year. In announcing it had again decided to drop it in January, the agency cited the same reason but included several others along with it, including added cost, greater impact to timberlands and a delay in the project timeline due to new landowners in the right of way.

Constance said his and other groups continue to meet with local elected officials about the project, hoping to push it away from “populated areas.” Earlier this month, the Camas City Council passed a resolution urging BPA to consider a route that would steer clear of Camas.

BPA is expected to release its draft environmental impact statement this spring, which will offer a much more detailed blueprint of the project. The agency has also indicated it’s working to identify a single preferred route as soon as possible.

The Army Corps will have to grant a key permit because of its authority over local waterways. Johnson said BPA also works with several other agencies as part of the planning process, including the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council and the Oregon Department of Energy.

Construction could begin as soon as 2013. BPA has also evaluated smaller “nonwire” fixes to the grid that could delay the need for a new transmission line. But that won’t delay the current planning process, according to the agency.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.