Boardman to Hemingway: Citizens attend meeting to share concerns about potential routes of proposed

By By Bill Rautenstrauch The Observer August 15, 2012 03:30 pm

Bill Rautenstrauch / The Observer Medical Springs resident Lyle Swartz confers over a map with Melissa Thom, a project coordinator for Enviroissues, an environmental consulting company working with Idaho Power on the siting of the B2H transmission line. Swartz and other Medical Springs-area residents are concerned about the proposed Timber Canyon route that would bring the line through their rural and picturesque neighborhood.

People concerned about Idaho Power’s plans to build a 500 kilovolt electric transmission line across eastern Oregon and into Idaho showed up in force at the Blue Mountain Conference Center Monday, trying to determine just how the project will affect their way of life.

The problem is, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies, plus the state Energy Facility Siting Council and Idaho Power itself, aren’t yet able to say.  The route, stretching from Boardman to Idaho Power’s Hemingway substation in Melba, Idaho, is a proposed one only at this point. Towers will be built and wire strung across public and private lands, but exact locations have yet to be decided.

The BLM, host of Monday’s informational meeting at the conference center, is still gathering public input and it will be a long time yet before a final route is picked. Holly Orr, the BLM’s project manager, said Monday the agency’s draft environmental impact statement, one requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act, isn’t due out till the first quarter of 2013. 

She said that as the lead agency, the BLM is trying to keep the public informed about route development and possible impacts on scenery, wildlife, cultural resources and more.

“After the DEIS is ready, there will be a 45-day comment period. This meeting is a heads up. It’s so people are prepared to offer their comments,” Orr said.

The siting process is a complex one and made more so by the fact that both the federal and state governments are involved. The BLM’’s environmental impact statement is the basis of the federal decision to issue right of way grants across federal lands. At the same time, Idaho Power is coordinating with the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council to meet state requirements for building the line.

According to schedule for the federal process, the draft EIS is due in 2013, the final EIS in the first half of 2014, and the final record of decision issued at the end of 2014. EFSC, meantime, is expected to issue a proposed order in mid 2013, a final order in the first half of 2015, and the site certificate n the first half of 2015. Idaho Power, dealing with all this, has moved its targeted in-service date from 2016 to 2018.

While the process continues, people like Kai Anderson, a Washington D.C. resident with deep family roots in La Grande, keep a wary eye on the local issues. Anderson, one of dozens of people showing up at the conference center Monday, said he is concerned that Idaho Power’s proposed route passes too close to Morgan Lake and the Old Oregon trail near his hometown.

“A lot of people care about the lake, it’s a great place, and for others the Oregon Trail makes a difference,” he said.

On maps showing the proposed route and alternatives, there is a blue line called the Glass Hill alternative, that swings south and west and avoids the area Anderson is concerned about. But he said he fears the utility’s preferred, red line alternative will win out. 

That  troubles him.

“You shouldn’t build the one that affects more people because it costs less,” he said.

Anderson also said he thinks the whole issue is being presented in a way that confuses rather than enlightens the public. He said that while he himself reads every word posted online about the project, he thinks there’s too much material for the average person to wade through.

“I wish they’d publicize it in a way people understand, so they know it would affect their visit to Morgan Lake,” he said.

A number of people from the Medical Springs area in southern Union County showed up for the meeting, including Lyle and Anita Swartz. They said their concern is the Timber Canyon Alternative, another blue line proposal that would shunt the transmission line with its 110-190 foot towers away from Baker City and the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and through Medical Springs. The Swartzes would rather that doesn’t happen. 

“It goes over a good part of our 630 acre ranch,” Lyle Swartz said.

Added his wife, “It disturbs our entire Medical Springs area. Highway 203 is a Grand Tour Scenic Route, and this would tear up a picturesque area,” she said.

Lyle said he and his neighbors fear they might be bowled over by progress.

“We feel like we’re the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike,” he said.

Another person on hand Monday night was Union County Commissioner Steve McClure, who said the county board of commissioners hopes for the sake of the view-shed that the new line will follow the path of the already-existing, 230 kilovolt line.

“We’re saying if you’re going to build the 500 kilovolt line, follow the existing corridor. Don’t bring it into the valley where you don’t have a sub-station,” McClure said.

Idaho Power says the the proposed line — called the B2H line — will allow for transport of low cost energy from a variety of generation sources in the northwest to serve homes, farms and businesses in the region. In answer to critics who say there is little at stake for northeast Oregon communities, the utility says the line will benefit all communities throughout the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain regions.

Kristi Pardue, Idaho Power’s facility siting coordinator, said during the meeting that increasing demand for electricity makes the line a necessity.

“The east-west path doesn’t have much capacity left,” she said. “In wintertime, the Pacific Northwest requires more power during the winter months, while the Idaho Power system peaks in the summer.”

Stephanie McCurdy, an Idaho Power communications specialist, echoed that statement.

“The line will help meet seasonal demand throughout the region,” she said.

For the latest maps, dates of future comment periods, public meetings and project milestones, visit www.boardmantohemingway.com on the Web.