Conservation Groups Sue DOE To Halt Transmission Corridors Without Further Study

Coming to a national park near you? Photo by Ian Koh via flickr.

In a bid to protect endangered species as well as national park viewsheds and landscapes, a coalition of conservation and environmental organizations is suing the U.S. Department of Energy over its National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors plans for the Mid-Atlantic and Southwestern states.

Driving the DOE is the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which was intended to provide for energy security. That legislation directed federal agencies to adopt major energy corridors across Southwestern and Mid-Atlantic states by this past August, with additional corridors to be designated in later years.

In the Southwest, the thousands of miles of proposed corridors are intended to fuel population centers. Standing in their way, though, are some National Park Service units and fragile and federally endangered populations of Desert Tortoise, Desert Bighorn sheep, and California condors in and around Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley National Park.

During an hour-long telephone conference call today the groups now suing the DOE -- the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Wildlife Federation, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates of New York, the Clean Air Council, the Pennsylvania Association of Land Trusts, the Brandywine Conservancy, the Natural Lands Trust, and the National Parks Conservation Association -- say the agency ran roughshod over the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and even the very Energy Policy Act that prompted this effort en route to identifying the transmission corridors.

The DOE's position, though, is that the "designation" of transmission corridors alone poses no environmental threat and so it's not obligated to conduct any environmental studies.

It neither permits nor precludes the construction of any transmission projects or any other ground-disturbing activity. One of the primary themes voiced by these commenters is that DOE’s
designation of a National Corridor will lead inexorably to the construction of transmission projects
and that DOE should predict and analyze their range, extent, and impact on the environment in an
EIS, the agency says. Any commitment to groundbreaking activities, with environmental impacts, would be made only after FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) had authorized construction. Before that point, however, FERC would have conducted a full NEPA review of the project.

But members of the coalition disagreed.

"We're at a stage in a much longer debate with the Department of Energy as to the implementation of part of the energy power act of 2005 that created for the first time federal condemnation authority for the siting of interstate transmission lines for high voltage electricity," said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "And we've reached this stage because the Department of Energy has refused to comply with federal law as reflected both in the Energy Policy Act and also environmental statutes that apply to major federal actions, such as the designation of National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors."

At risk, according to the groups, are nearly 100 endangered and threatened species in the Southwest. as well as Joshua Tree National Park, Sonoran Desert National Monument, Carrizo Plain National Monument and Mojave National Preserve, along with 35 units of the national park system in the Mid-Atlantic states.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the proposed Southwest transmission corridor alone would impact a "45-million-acre area that includes seven southern California and three Arizona counties."

In the Mid-Atlantic states, the NPCA says the corridor could potentially impact the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, Shenandoah National Park, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historical District, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Antietam National Battlefield, Monocacy National Battlefield, Gettysburg National Military Park, the C&O Canal National Historical Park, the Schuylkill River National Heritage Area, and the Delaware and Lehigh National Historic Corridor.

"There's far too much history at stake in this region to allow DOE to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws. A thorough examination of the 17 hallowed battlegrounds and other historic resources in the region, it's an absolute necessity in this situation. We need to ensure that our national heritage is not destroyed because a few utility companies want to short-circuit the process, said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust.

NPCA legislative analyst Bryan Faehner said there are 35 units of the park system within the Mid-Atlantic corridor. Together they attract roughly 17.6 million visitors a year, he said. "Some of them (transmission line corridors) are extremely close to Gettysburg, Antietam, Monocacy, within a few miles," he said.

In New York, Mr. Faehner continued, the New York Regional Interconnect proposal would run 130-foot-tall power towers "straight through the boundaries of the" Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, a federally designated wild and scenic river.

Wes Gillingham from the Catskill Mountain Keepers association added that the proposed project runs almost two-thirds of the way down the 70-mile scenic and recreational river. "It greatly affects a number of species that rely on the river and the habitat around there, including bald eagles, golden eagles," he said.

"The broad corridor designation includes millions of acres and lots of park units, and so the potential threat extends to almost every national park in that eight-state region," pointed out Mr. Miller.

Jim Dougherty, lead counsel for the coalition, said that, "A number of groups asked the DOE to declare that major parks would be off-limits for these power lines, or at least presumptively so, and they refused. We don't know what's going to happen. They have power, apparently, under this new statute to run power lines through Shenandoah National Park, through Adirondack Park. There are no controls on it."

"There's millions of acres of so-called protected federal and state lands that would be impacted in the Southwest corridor, not just national parks," added Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity. "As far as I understand it, only wilderness areas would be excluded from being subject to a transmission line or facility, but that leaves national parks, wildlife refuges, conservation areas, areas of critical environmental concern, and national monuments open to having lines or facilities sited within them."

While the National Park Service has discretionary authority over the siting of transmission corridors and facilities through the park system, according to Mr. Faehner, Mr. Dougherty said there is nothing in the National Park Service Organic Act that would enable the Park Service to block DOE from designating corridors across park lands.

"I think DOE will be able to roll them," he said.

NIETC_MidAtlantic_Area_Corridor_Map.pdf1.64 MB
NIETC_Southwest_Area_Corridor_Map.pdf1.49 MB