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Pacific County PUD Ratepayers Question PUD Commissioners

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Dear Commissioners,

 

I submit this public comment letter on behalf of members of Concerned PUD #2 Ratepayers (hereafter “the Ratepayers”), including Ron Craig, Dick Shelton, Dick Anderson, Steve Sheary and Malcolm McPhai, in anticipation of a public hearing at 1 p.m. today, Nov. 19 (date added). The Ratepayers believe it is premature for the Public Utility District (PUD) Board of Commissioners to approve $13 million for the Tokeland transmission line project as part of the 2014 electrical budget.  Today’s budget hearing is an opportunity to explain how the PUD’s process has been flawed and why it is important to the environment and to all of the county’s ratepayers that applicable regulations be enforced. The Ratepayers urge both boards to ensure that the PUD obtains the necessary permits and completes the required environmental review before the transmission line project moves forward.

·        Background

The PUD’s proposed 2014 budget includes the following two line items under the heading “2014 Capital Activity Electric Department”:

·        “115kV Transmission Line – SR105 to Tokeland”

·        “Tokeland Substation Construction”

There is no narrative explanation of these items in the budget document which was circulated for public review. Nor is there any specific plan for the project attached to, or referenced in, that document. The Ratepayers repeatedly have complained that the lack of a detailed plan deprives the public of a meaningful voice in the project.

Amplifying these concerns, the PUD recently took the position that adoption of the annual electric budget constitutes “final government action” on the transmission line project. The Ratepayers strongly believe that final approval is inappropriate prior to completing an environmental review of the entire project including the Tokeland substation, the Willapa-Tokeland transmission line, and a planned extension of the line from Tokeland to Oysterville.

·        The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), Chap. 43.21C RCW, Requires an Analysis of Impacts and Alternatives Before a PUD Decision is Made.

Nearly 12 years ago, on December 12, 2001, the PUD published a SEPA Determination of Non-significance for construction of 4.75 miles of 115KV Transmission Line along SR 105 “between WSDOT Mile Posts 2.35 and 7.1.”  The PUD invited comments until December 26, 2001, as to whether it had correctly determined that the 4.75-mile project would not have a significant adverse impact on the environment and therefore did not require an environmental impact statement.

In a letter dated December 21, 2001, Kari Rokstad, SEPA coordinator for the Southwest Regional Office of the Washington State Department of Ecology, objected to the PUD’s determination of non-significance. She noted that, in preparing the SEPA checklist of environmental impacts, the PUD dealt with only part of the project - from the Willapa River to Baleville - and failed to describe impacts of the full length of the planned transmission line. Ms. Rokstad wrote in part:

The SEPA checklist indicates that this proposal is part of a larger proposal that will include submarine [underwater] cable crossings…..It seems evident from information provided that each segment of a continuous transmission line, although done in phases, is an interdependent part of a larger proposal and that all segments together would be considered a single action required to be evaluated in the same SEPA document…..To be consistent with the SEPA rules, Ecology recommends that you consider reissuing SEPA for this proposal….Developing a more comprehensive SEPA document up front should help the total proposal move through the environmental permit process in a more cohesive way…    

In the same 2001 letter, the Ecology coordinator said the SEPA checklist did not clearly explain the extent of the project’s impacts on wetlands.  She advised the PUD to contact the Pacific County Planning Department, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Lands Division and the state Ecology Department about permitting requirements for the project.

The Ratepayers have made multiple requests under the Public Records Act for records of the permitting and environmental review of the Tokeland transmission project. To date, the PUD has not produced any documentation that Ecology’s 2001 concerns were addressed. The PUD has not produced any SEPA checklist, Determination of Non-significance or Environmental Impact Statement for the currently planned part of the project from Baleville to Tokeland. This is unacceptable. The 2001 review did not address the currently planned segment of the power line. Under RCW 42.21C.030(c), the PUD must prepare an environmental impact statement for the project, and obtain comments from the county as well as state and federal environmental agencies, before taking “final” action on the project.

Over the years, the PUD has internally discussed with its consultants many harmful aspects of the project, including filling wetlands, digging through oyster beds and crossing shell mounds of cultural significance to local tribes. PUD records suggest that the Tokeland power project will denigrate water quality, harm protected species of birds and fish, and cause erosion damage to neighboring properties. The PUD has been well aware of SEPA requirements, having hired a consultant, CHR Solutions, in March 2011 to “conduct a SEPA process.”  More than two years after signing that consultant contract, which called for a public hearing “to provide the communities surrounding Willapa Bay adequate opportunity to comment,” the PUD has yet to conduct a public hearing on environmental impacts of the transmission line project.  Although the PUD internally studied alternative routes, no public discussion of alternatives has ever occurred.

The time for SEPA compliance is overdue.  The Ratepayers urge both Boards to ensure that all significant impacts of the project are thoroughly explored as part of a public process before allowing the transmission line and substation to be built. 

·        Pacific County Regulations Must Be Enforced.

On September 8, 2008, Mike Stevens, a senior planner in the Pacific County Department of Community Development, wrote an email to PUD engineer Jason Dunsmoor explaining the county’s approval requirements for the Tokeland substation project. Mr. Stevens noted that the PUD already had violated the county’s critical areas regulations by filling wetlands at the substation property without a permit.  He wrote in part:

A wetland delineation report prepared by a qualified wetland consultant will need to be obtained.  The wetland delineation report will need to satisfy the regulations contained within Pacific County Ordinance No. 147, Critical Areas and Resource Lands.  The…report shall demonstrate that the existing fill, which was not permitted by Pacific County, complies with the regulations contained within Ordinance No. 147. Since the fill materials were not permitted by Pacific County and are a direct violation of the County’s

regulations, the illegal placement of the fill materials cannot be considered ‘vested’ and therefore must comply with the mitigation sequencing contained within Ordinance No. 147…

The subject property is located within the 100-year flood plain per FEMA maps for the area. As a result, a pre-construction flood elevation certificate shall be obtained and submitted as part of the application materials…

An engineered drainage plan shall be completed for the site…. The engineered drainage plan shall demonstrate that the proposed development (including fill placement) does have a detrimental impact to neighboring properties or the SR 105 highway.

A detailed SEPA checklist will need to be completed.  The checklist shall incorporate all portions of the proposal, including the installation of transmission lines from the existing transmission line terminus to the proposed project site. 

Detailed site plans and, if necessary, trenching information shall be submitted for the proposed transmission line installation….

Compliance with the County’s wetland regulations shall be demonstrated if the proposed transmission lines will be placed within wetlands and/or wetland buffer areas that are undisturbed…. (italics added). 

Mr. Stevens concluded the 2008 email by saying that additional requirements may be imposed after a pre-application meeting. Mr. Dunsmoor, the PUD engineer, forwarded the email to PUD General Manager Doug Miller.  At the time, Mr. Dunsmoor wrote, “I am thinking of hiring a consultant to do all this ‘BS.’”  Thus, according to the PUD’s email records, the chief engineer viewed the county’s regulatory requirements as “BS.”  The PUD has yet to follow Mr. Stevens’ guidance.

 

In December 2011, a PUD consultant completed a Wetland Delineation Report describing “numerous wetlands…along or adjacent to” the proposed route for a “multi-purpose data/power cable” line across Willapa Bay from the Willapa River to Tokeland.  That report and a 2012 biological evaluation were given to federal wildlife agencies in support of installing cable and electric lines together pursuant to a technology grant.  However, it appears the wetland report was never given to the county, and according to PUD records, the project has changed substantially since the report was prepared.  The PUD was unable to secure satisfactory bids for the cable installation, and as of July 2, 2013, the PUD had dropped the plan to cross the bay and decided to “turn to design of a 115kV OH/UG Transmission line along SR 105,”  according PUD Board minutes.

Meanwhile, on June 28, Mr. Craig made a public records request to Pacific County for “any and all county development permits for PUD #2” for a power extension to Tokeland, Oysterville and/or Bay Center.  On August 8, 2013, Marie Guernsey, clerk of the county Board of Commissioners, responded that “no responsive documents were found.”  She also wrote that “Pacific County confirmed with PUD#2 Director Doug Miller that no documentation or applications have been submitted to Pacific County for permits regarding the proposed power extension project.” Another citizen got a similar response to a similar records request in September 2013.  Based on these responses, it is apparent that the PUD never applied for permits for the Tokeland substation or transmission line.

This reported lack of permit applications is unacceptable. The PUD has had years to comply with the county’s environmental regulations. There are important policy reasons for the county’s protection of critical areas. Our economy and quality of life are enriched by maintaining healthy wetlands, salmon habitat, oyster beds and cranberry farms. It has been five years since the PUD was told to mitigate damage from illegally filling wetlands and to submit a detailed wetland report and checklist of environmental impacts before proceeding with the transmission line project. Instead of adhering to Pacific County’s regulations, the PUD has forged ahead with the project, including spending $60,000 to design the Tokeland substation, paying $151,000 for two 123 kV power circuit breakers to protect the planned Willapa-Tokeland line, and attempting to hire installation contractors.        

It was suggested to the Ratepayers that the transmission line project has been exempted from county permit requirements. The Ratepayers dispute that the project is exempt and request a formal written interpretation from the director of the Department of Community Development that the project requires county approval. 

A Comprehensive Plan is a policy document, not a regulation, and only an amendment of Comprehensive Plan map can alter land use regulation in Pacific County. See Ordinance No. 162, Section 28.A.  Moreover, even if a Plan policy was considered a regulation, “in case of direct conflict among regulations, the most restrictive requirements shall apply.”  See Ordinance No. 151, Section 3.B.2. The 2010 Pacific County Comprehensive Plan Policy U-2.1 says that electrical substations should be sited and designed to mitigate impacts on surrounding communities. There is no utilities policy to exempt transmission lines or substations from environmental requirements. Notably, the critical areas ordinance lists six exemptions, none of which apply to the Tokeland substation or transmission line. See Ordinance No. 147 Section 3.E.

The Ratepayers urge the County Commissioners to ensure that the PUD complies with Ordinance No. 151 (requiring a county permit before building any structure, such as a substation), Ordinance No. 147 (“no alteration of critical areas and resource lands…shall occur in the absence of express approval by Pacific County”), Ordinance No. 166 (SEPA), and Resolution 2000-039 (Shoreline Management Program).  Mr. Stevens, the county planner, was correct when he requested the PUD’s compliance with these regulations in 2008.

According to a July 2013 Powerpoint presentation at a PUD Board meeting, the PUD plans to buy materials and hire a contractor for the Tokeland substation in the second quarter of 2014. This timetable, and the lack of any permit application to date, suggests that the PUD has no intention of complying with Pacific County regulations for the project. The Ratepayers believe that permit compliance must be demanded before the PUD Board takes “final” action to fund the Tokeland power project.

·        The Army Corps of Engineers Must Issue a Permit.

For nearly two years, the PUD has discussed with its consultants whether it needs approval of the Tokeland transmission line from the Army Corps of Engineers.  Yesterday, Nov. 18 (date added), Ron Wilcox, who handles Corps permits in Pacific County, confirmed that the Pacific County PUD has never applied for the necessary permit for the Tokeland transmission line.

In conclusion, the PUD has indicated that if the PUD Board adopts the proposed 2014 electrical budget, that will constitute final approval to move forward with the Tokeland transmission project. Today is the final public hearing on that budget proposal which contains only two non-descript line items concerning the project.  Without the required environmental and permitting review, the public has no meaningful opportunity to scrutinize and comment on the $13 million project. The Ratepayers submit these comments in order to emphasize the lack of careful thought and public participation in the PUD’s process so far, and to request a delay of any decisions until the current project plan is spelled out in sufficient detail for meaningful review. 

 

Thank you for your consideration.       

 

Very truly yours,

 

HARRISON-BENIS, LLP

Katherine A. George

Editor’s Note:This article first appeared on www.hometowndebate.com 11/22/13. If you would like to respond to this story go to hometowndebate.com

 

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