NPPD tackles another hurdle to construct R-Line in the Sandhills
Despite concern from residents in the Nebraska Sandhills, the Nebraska Public Power District continues to move forward with its controversial R-Line project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued NPPD an incidental take permit for the American Burying Beetle on June 17. The permit was considered one of the last steps NPPD needed before construction begins this fall.
The R-Line will be constructed through an area that is considered home to the endangered insect. The permit authorizes any action that could harm the beetle or its habitat in the project area during the construction and for a 50-year operation period. NPPD will purchase 400 acres of land as part of their habitat conservation plan to serve as a location for the beetle.
The $265 million R-Line transmission system will start at the NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman station near Sutherland and proceed to an existing substation east of Thedford, before heading east to connect to another substation in Holt County. The 345,000 volt transmission system will allow NPPD to provide its customers with more reliability, relieve congestion on the existing system, and provide opportunities for the future development of renewable projects at the local level. On a recent “Pure Nebraska” broadcast, Tom Kent, the COO of NPPD, reiterated the importance of the project. “Even if renewable projects don’t connect to this line, it is still needed for reliability concerns and to relieve congestion,” he said.
Planning for this project began in 2012, and has since involved more than 1,750 individuals who attended one of 20 public open houses, public meetings, or public hearings that provided NPPD with more than 2,500 comments.
Despite reassurances from NPPD and government entities that their concerns have been addressed, some residents in the Sandhills still oppose the project. Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, Neb., has worked with his constituents to address those concerns and have even attempted to stop construction of the project in the fragile Sandhills. Brewer said he is “very disappointed in NPPD and the federal agencies making these terribly flawed decisions. They have steadfastly ignored the many concerns from hundreds of citizens, and the mountains of hard evidence and research presented to them.”
Brewer and other residents against the project believe the 225-mile long high voltage power line will cause irreversible damage to the fragile ecosystem in the Sandhills. “The planned route for this project will cause permanent harm to the most environmentally fragile area in Nebraska, and it will kill endangered Whooping Cranes at a rate that may lead to their extinction,” he wrote in a press release.
Mark Becker, who is the corporate media and media services supervisor for NPPD, said that whooping crane issues have been adequately addressed by NPPD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We have put plans in place, including a habitat conservation plan that was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It also covers the American Burying Beetle, and other species of animals, insects and plants,” he said. In addition, the NPPD also has a migratory bird conservation plan that covers the Whooping Crane, in place for the R-Line project.
Becker said a U.S. Fish and Wildlife study shows only two Whooping Crane deaths in the last 30 years from birds flying into distribution lines, which are the lines that run beside roadways and lead out to the farm or ranch. “They typically fly into distribution lines, but they don’t typically fly into transmission lines. They fly above those. We are adding 225 miles of transmission lines in Nebraska, but the migratory route for the Whooping Crane includes 34,000 existing miles of transmission lines,” he said.
The project, which is slated to begin this fall as early as September, is expected to take two years to complete. Becker said NPPD is currently doing some preliminary activities in anticipation of the construction, which includes putting in new gates, trimming trees, and setting up storage and supply yards for the project. Forbes Brothers Timberline Construction of Rapid City, S.D., was awarded the bid for the project.
NPPD currently has about 78 percent of the landowner easements needed for the project, but they hope to get more. “When we work with the landowners to get an easement in place, we show them where the engineers think the best route is, but we want their input. They may tell us the line is going through a wet area, and it may be better if it was up on that hill. We want to work with the landowners on those issues,” Becker said.
Brewer fears the project will lead to “one of the largest government seizures of private property in the history of the state, as most of the route will have to be forcibly taken through NPPD’s use of eminent domain.”
“We’d like to get 100 percent volunteer easements,” Becker said, “but we probably won’t get that on this project. Unfortunately, we will probably have to use our right of eminent domain and go through condemnation proceedings in court, but we would prefer to get volunteer easements.”
Brewer thinks much of the conflict centers around future wind energy projects planned in the Sandhills. Becker said those projects are up to the local government and landowners to approve or disapprove them. He said that if a wind developer wants a footprint on 20 pieces of property and can only get two landowners to commit to the project, they would be out of luck, because wind development companies cannot use eminent domain. “NPPD will not give them the ability to use our right of eminent domain either,” he said.
Since NPPD has received their permits to start construction on the project, and construction is slated to begin, Brewer said the next step in fighting the process will be state and federal lawsuits filed by primary landowners.
Brewer wonders why NPPD wouldn’t consider a different route. “They have ignored the other, less harmful routes that could be used for the powerline,” he wrote.
Becker said that people have asked why they don’t build the transmission line where an existing transmission line already exists. “We don’t do that,” he said, explaining that a current transmission line between North Platte and Kearney is periodically hit by tornadoes and ice storms. “We’ve lost those lines over the years,” he said, referring to major ice storm damage in 2006 and 2007 that brought those structures to the ground and caused significant damage. “By building this line farther north, there will be fewer tornadoes and less ice damage. We would also have another route to use if there is another really bad ice storm to the south,” he said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.