Feds reconsider Navajo power line decision

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is reconsidering a decision on a right-of-way easement for an electrical transmission line that is expected to carry energy from the Navajo Nation to areas across the Southwest.

The federal agency granted the easement for a 3.4-mile stretch of the line near Shiprock, N.M., in September. A group of environmentalists later appealed, saying the bureau relied on an outdated environmental analysis in issuing its decision and that the analysis should include both the transmission line and a proposed coal-fired power plant because the two projects would go hand in hand.

Before a Department of Interior panel decided the matter, the BLM asked that its decision be set aside so it could reconsider whether the environmental analysis was adequate.

“We’re taking another look at it and a close look, and at this point we don’t have a time frame,” said Mike Brown, a spokesman for the BLM in Kingman.

Environmentalists, who have fought the Desert Rock power plant every step of the way, claimed victory in the BLM’s decision. Electricity generated from the $3 billion, 1,500-megawatt power plant to be built on the Navajo Nation south of Farmington, N.M., would move through parts of the transmission line.

“It could indicate a willingness on the part of this administration to rethink the whole Desert Rock, Navajo Transmission Project, or it could be an acknowledgment on their part that the environmental analysis was willfully inadequate,” said Matt Kenna, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Durango.

The environmental groups also had appealed the BIA approval on a right of way for a separate area of the transmission line that would cross tribal trust land. The BIA, following the BLM’s lead, asked another panel of the Interior Department for its Oct. 8 decision to be remanded for reconsideration.

The environmental analysis for the Navajo Transmission Project, a 470-mile line that would stretch from Shiprock to Laughlin, Nev., was approved in 1997, but the project hasn’t been built.

Years later, the tribe partnered with Houston-based Sithe Global Power to build Desert Rock.

Environmentalists now want the environmental impact statement for the transmission project redone to identify energy sources, including renewable, and reflect new information regarding impacts to endangered species and critical habitats. They say the analysis should be part of the Desert Rock analysis.

“The studies failed to assess the impacts of the proposed power plant, which is the sole reason for building the NTP now,” Kenna said.

Doug MacCourt, an attorney for the Diné Power Authority, said the transmission line and the power plant don’t serve the same purpose and shouldn’t be considered under one environmental analysis.

“We believe the record of decision is defensible on both of the claims,” he said. “But if the BLM is of the opinion that it needs to take another look at the record and make sure that its decision is defensible, whether or not that means doing more work, that’s all about saving time.”

The last thing the project’s proponents want to do is spend years arguing in front of an appeals board, he said.

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