Murray, Cantwell send letter to BPA

By:  Eric Florip, Columbian Staff Reporter
Source: Seattle PI

Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have added their voices to the recent debate over a proposed high-powered transmission line through Clark and Cowlitz counties.

The two Democratic senators jointly sent a letter to Bonneville Power Administration chief Stephen Wright on Thursday, urging the federal power agency to "carefully listen to local residents’ concerns and identify a solution that has the smallest impact on property owners as possible."

The controversial project has now drawn formal input from all three of Southwest Washington’s congressional representatives. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, traded letters with Wright earlier this year over possible routes of the 500-kilovolt line.

Murray first weighed in last year.

This week’s letter appears to tread carefully — both senators’ offices have met recently with opposing citizen groups pushing for very different outcomes on the project. But each seemed happy with the response, and the attention a congressional statement brings.

"The fact that the delegation has all weighed in, it’s critical," said Erna Sarasohn, who chairs Citizens Against the Towers. "We are incredibly grateful."

BPA first floated the transmission line project in 2009 as a way to ease a strained Northwest power grid and support growing energy demands across the region. Planners have identified four main routes — along with several variations based from them — for the proposed line between Castle Rock and Troutdale, Ore., but found opposition from residents with health and property concerns. All four lines would cross the Columbia River at Camas, held up by 150-foot utility towers along the way.

The letter from Cantwell and Murray didn’t take a strong stance on where planners should put the line. But the two senators did call on BPA to push back the planned release of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, originally due out before the end of 2011. That document kicks off a finite public comment period, and delaying it until early next year gives people a better chance to weigh in, Cantwell and Murray wrote.

"It is also important that affected residents have ample time outside of the busy holiday season to offer comments on the Draft EIS (DEIS) that is expected to be released in the coming months," they wrote. "To this end, I respectfully request that you postpone the release of the DEIS until January 2012 at the earliest."

BPA is considering that request but hasn’t nailed down a release date, said spokesman Doug Johnson. Regardless of when the official comment period begins and ends, BPA is always willing to listen to residents, he said.

The estimated $340 million project’s route hasn’t been settled, but a preferred alternative could be laid out in the EIS. Citizen group A Better Way for BPA has supported the agency’s west alternative into Vancouver that would build the line almost entirely in existing federal right of way. They argue that putting the project in rural areas means taking some people’s private property for new right of way.

A different collection of intertwined citizen groups — Citizens Against the Towers, Another Way BPA, and the Yale Valley Coalition — has pitched its own "Grey Line" that would push the route farther north and east than any of BPA’s proposed alternatives, Supporters say it would also affect far fewer homes.

The varying citizen groups appear to agree on one thing: Pushing the EIS release back to January is a good idea.

"We support the delay," said Cheryl Brantley, chairwoman of A Better Way for BPA. "To do that during the holidays would not be appropriate."