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Klickitat officials express surprise at Friends of Gorge, BPA settlement

Published March 27 in the Goldendale Sentinel

The Big-Eddy Knight Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) transmission line and substation project is a six-year -old project filled with both predictable and unexpected twists and turns, not surprising for a project which traverses the scenic Columbia River Gorge, winds over private properties, and uses public funds. The latest development of the multimillion-dollar transmission line and substation project—the request to purchase properties by non-profit environmental activist group, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge (FOCG)—is one which has local officials surprised, while project principals with the BPA and FOCG view the project and its operational processes as going well.

The large-scale BPA project has a history which is lengthy and complex, leading up to recent conversations with local officials.

BPA began the complex process of finding the best route, the right pieces of property to install the proposed 28 mile, high-voltage Big-Eddy Knight transmission line and substation to increase voltage transmission capacity project back in 2009 when federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding was available to help the BPA with this significant project, which would increase transmission capacity.

The project as characterized by BPA: The Big-Eddy Knight Transmission Project will respond to requests for transmission service in the region by increasing transmission capability of the electrical system. For the transmission line, BPA has decided to build East Alternative Option 3, which was identified in the final EIS as the preferred alternative for the transmission line route. For the first 14 miles, the line will use double-circuit towers (combining the new line and an existing line on one set of towers) mostly on existing right of way. The remaining 14 miles of the new line will be built with single-circuit towers in newly-established transmission line right of way. BPA has also decided to build the small (about one mile) realignment of the East Alternative on the side of the , as described in the final EIS. For the proposed new Knight Substation, BPA has decided to build Knight Substation on Site 1, which is on private property about 0.5 mile west of Knight Road. For the fiber optic cable necessary for system communications, BPA has decided to build the Loop Back Option, which will string fiber optic cable on the new transmission towers from BPA’s Big Eddy Substation to the new Knight Substation and back again. The project also includes new equipment at BPA’s existing Big Eddy and Wautoma substations.”

Since the federal project’s launch, it has undergone requisite public hearings and investigative studies known as the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process, which is required by federal law. The outcome of the NEPA process for the Big-Eddy Knight is recorded in binding public documents known as the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision (ROD). The NEPA process, according to federal instruction, follows this order: “NEPA requires Federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) for major Federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. An EIS is a full disclosure document that details the process through which a transportation project was developed, includes consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives, analyzes the potential impacts resulting from the alternatives, and demonstrates compliance with other applicable environmental laws and executive orders. The EIS process in completed in the following ordered steps: Notice of Intent (NOI), draft EIS, final EIS and record of decision (ROD).”

The Big Eddy Knight EIS and ROD are found on the BPA site: NEPA requires Federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) for major Federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. An EIS is a full disclosure document that details the process through which a transportation project was developed, includes consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives, analyzes the potential impacts resulting from the alternatives, and demonstrates compliance with other applicable environmental laws and executive orders. The EIS process in completed in the following ordered steps: Notice of Intent (NOI), draft EIS, final EIS and record of decision (ROD).

As a publicly funded project, the Big Eddy Knight project is also subject to public transparency. In accordance with the law, project documents when finalized, are made available for public viewing on the BPA site.

The BPA’s site and its records for the project show each project milestone beginning with Project Intent, step one, beginning May 27, 2009, continuing on to the Dec.10, 2010, Draft EIS to the three part Final EIS of July 2011. Following the publication of the Final EIS, new information came to light, and project design adjustments were made. Details of the adjustment were recorded in a June 27, 2012, Goldendale Sentinel newspaper article. While not providing specifics, the BPA announced the Big Eddy Knight project was delayed by one year.

From the June 27 article: “A source speaking to The Sentinel on condition of anonymity reports that the letter came two days after the BPA received a legal brief from a prominent law firm challenging the BPA’s right to certain easement properties, along with other concerns. Past minutes of commissioners’ meeting reveal that the BPA did give advance notice of its intention to delay the project to the commissioners. The BPA’s letter, addressed to ‘Parties interested in the Big Eddy-Knight Transmission Project,’ goes on to say, ‘BPA needs more time to address and complete cultural resource and land acquisition processes that are part of this project; these processes are ongoing. When BPA began construction activities in fall 2011, we anticipated energizing the line in the winter of 2013. At present, BPA estimates construction will be completed and the line energized in winter 2014. BPA will notify you when the timing for completing the project has been determined.’

More detail of this delay is found on the BPA Big-Eddy Knight project website under “Project Design Adjustments 7/11/12” and “Project New Information and Design Adjustments dated 11/28/12.” The delay documents cite cultural considerations for which design changes need to be made along with safety adjustments which will also need to be made as the project runs parallel to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad lines.

Behind the scenes of every federal project, such as Big Eddy Knight are negotiations with property owners in order to obtain necessary property for building, for easements which provide access, for roads. Some negotiations go easily, and some go through the court process known as Eminent Domain. Many of the property negotiations are under way at this time.

During the latter part of the BPA project study processes, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge (FOCG), a Columbia River Gorge environmental advocacy group, became interested in the Big-Eddy Knight project, then became involved by entering into discussions with the BPA about the project’s impacts on the environment as well as some discordances of the project when laying the project specifications against the National Scenic Area rules.

FOCG’s Executive Director Kevin Gorman noted, “BPA issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement in July 2011 and their Record of Decision in September 2011, We never filed a lawsuit, but had been discussing mitigation measures prior to their decision and reached a final settlement in December 2011. As part of the settlement, we agreed not to file a legal appeal.”

According to BPA spokeswoman Teresa Waugh, “the settlement was due to the scenic impact of Big-Eddy Knight.”

The FOCG underwent a process of study, said Gorman, to determine what it believed would be the most suitable proposals for property. “When the idea of a settlement was discussed, we started looking at it in terms of mitigation that might be used to offset the scenic impacts of the transmission towers within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and its view shed. We came up with mitigation options such as buying land to ensure development doesn’t occur, burying underground power lines, and removing ‘discordant features’ such as abandoned buildings on otherwise open landscapes. We submitted a proposal for the acquisition of two properties, one in Skamania County and one in Wasco County. The BPA project runs through Wasco and Klickitat counties, but the mitigation is for reducing scenic impacts in the National Scenic Area itself, rather than just the isolated area.”

The three proposed parcels of land are two adjacent lots totaling 14 acres in Wasco County known as the Woods properties and the 15.72 acre Errol Station property in Skamania County. The proposal says, “This funding requires directly protects the scenic resources of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area, the main objective of the mitigation funds. It preserves open landscapes, prevents structures from being built on properties and builds the base of contiguous, protected lands.” The FOCG submitted its proposal to the BPA, requesting funding in the amount of $1,029,000.

According to the proposal timeline, the process of purchasing these properties is in the appraisal and environmental assessment phases, with a target date of April to purchase the properties.

According to Klickitat County Public Utility District (PUD) documents, it was following the Dec. 16, 2011, agreement between BPA and FOC when the PUD began working with the FOCG on a pair of Klickitat area projects which would provide “two major utility line upgrades which would mitigate aesthetic impacts and improve power distribution system reliability. ”

The PUD projects would underground transmission lines which offset overhead transmission lines, which are considered a “discordant” feature which impacts views within the Gorge Scenic Area.”

It was the hope of the Klickitat County Commissioners and the leadership of the Klickitat PUD that the PUD projects would be selected by the FOCG due to the projects’ adherence to Gorge Scenic Area guidelines.

In a Feb. 26, 2013, letter to the BPA signed by Klickitat County Commissioners David Sauter and Jim Sizemore (Rex Johnson was absent), the commissioners expressed dismay at the PUD project not being included in the FOCG proposal as well as what the commissioners perceived as an inflated price for the FOCG proposed projects, “Klickitat County asks the BPA to reconsider its approach to making mitigation funding and condemnation funding decisions. Decisions on mitigation should address impacts within the host County and should be fair to the property owners over which BPA is constructing Big-Eddy Knight Transmission Project.”

Waugh explains the BPA’s role in project selection. “Friends of the Gorge selects proposals without any involvement from BPA. BPA’s role is to review the proposals submitted by Friends for consideration of certain criteria. BPA will pay only the appraised Market price for the properties that the Friends have proposed be acquired. The price in the proposal is only an estimate by Friends at what the appraisal price may be. The appraisals have not been done yet, but they will be scheduled soon. BPA has not received any concerns from landowners about the price being offered for the proposal’s properties.”

Gorman reiterated the project appraisals were in process and not firmed up. “I saw the letter from the County Commissioners, and that is all I’ve heard. But the concerns raised in the letter are comparing two very different things (utilities paying fair Market value on an easement versus fair Market value of a purchase of buildable acreage). Any properties purchased through this fund have to go through a rigorous appraisal process as the agency will not pay over fair Market value. The figures we put into our proposal were best estimates and not ‘offers.’ The appraisals will determine the final price, and we’ll have to accept that or walk away.”

Gorman also said the PUD’s projects may still have life in them at this juncture, “We are also working on a proposal from the Klickitat PUD to fund burying some of their power lines. This proposal came to us after the acquisition opportunities presented themselves, and it is a project Friends is excited to be looking at. In the case of funding burying the lines, we will be looking at it primarily from a scenic enhancement standpoint—will it benefit the landscape? We hope to submit some form of the PUD proposal to the BPA soon.”

On March 15, 2013, the BPA responded to the County Commissioners in a letter signed by project manager Emmanual Jaramillo, saying,“Review of the proposals will be conducted using the process and criteria set forth in the BPA’s draft implementation guidelines and the settlement agreement. The comments and assessment you provided along with those of others will be valuable to the Implementation Team as they begin to evaluate the Friend’s proposals. Any proposal involving land acquisition will undergo an appraisal to establish fair Market value. ”

According to Klickitat PUD Ron Ihrig, PUD chief operating officer, the idea of further consideration of PUD projects by the FOCG is part of the conversations the PUD had with FOCG representatives a year ago. “It sounds right,” said Ihrig. “I am optimistic.”

With its long-lasting, large scale high impacts, the Big-Eddy Knight project is six years underway, but would appear to have many miles, months, and conversations to go.

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