BLM OKs preconstruction activities for Oregon transmission line

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has given developers the approval to start preconstruction activities for the North Steens transmission line in southeastern Oregon. The BLM’s “notice to proceed,” issued May 21, allows developer Echanis to undertake preconstruction activities including engineering, cultural resource surveys, and biological assessments along the proposed route of the line.

Echanis is a subsidiary of Columbia Energy Partners, which is based in Vancouver, Wash.

The 29-mile, 230-kV line would connect the proposed Echanis wind energy project being developed by Columbia Energy Partners to the Harney (Ore.) Electric Cooperative’s existing grid.

The notice to proceed is the next step following the December 2011 “record of decision” (ROD) by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approving the project.

“Following this, there are a few things that the project proponent has to provide to the BLM in order for them to receive their second notice to proceed,” a BLM spokesperson told TransmissionHub on May 29. The second notice to proceed will be for groundbreaking and construction activities.

“The things that are required are engineered transmission line plans with pole locations, a monetary value which is agreed to, a cost reimbursement agreement, and maps detailing work by section of construction,” the spokesperson said.

Although the line is intended to serve the wind energy project proposed for Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon, the project is facing legal challenges. On April 5, the Portland Audubon Society and Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) filed suit against the transmission project in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore.

The groups are seeking to block what they claim is “an illegal project by the Department of the Interior that would forever change an otherwise wild and beautiful landscape,” according to a statement on the ONDA website.

“Transmission lines for the project would cut across an area protected by Congress in 2000 and the project would fragment one of the largest undeveloped landscapes left in the Great Basin,” the groups’ statement continued.

Wind turbines, transmission lines, access roads and associated development pose threats to migratory routes and breeding areas for a variety of sensitive species, the groups claim.

The county judge in Harney County, Ore., site of the proposed wind development, sees the groups’ action as an attempt to subvert the state’s land-use process, through which the wind farm was approved in April 2007.

“Why weren’t they here when the project was first proposed?” County Judge Steve Grasty asked during an interview with TransmissionHub on May 30.

“Millions of dollars have been invested [along with] thousands of hours of folks’ time here in this county – including mine – and now they’re complaining about the transmission line,” Grasty said. “If they had issues, why weren’t they here at the start?”

Grasty said, “We heard nothing but support for the project. Once the community has spoken, once the land-use process has been completed, we need to support” the decision.

The groups’ suit acknowledges that the wind project itself “would be built in a private inholding located next to the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area.”

The BLM’s draft EIS noted that turbines from the wind project will be visible from 668 acres, or 0.4%, of the 170,000-acre Steens Mountain Wilderness.

The BLM’s December 2011 ROD stated the transmission and wind project together would support “as many as 235 temporary and permanent jobs.” The wind project would generate $1.6m per year in increased real estate and personal property taxes for the life of the project, the ROD stated.

“Will this help and add tax dollars?” Grasty asked. “Sure, it will. The reality is, this is good for our community: it’s jobs, it’s economic development.”