Power Push

People want to talk about the proposed SunZia power line—but the BLM does not want to hear it

Shovels have yet to hit earth, and sparks are already flying over high-voltage power lines slated for Southern Arizona's beautiful backcountry.

Not only do critics consider the so-called SunZia Southwest Transmission Project a pending ecological disaster; they also call it a case of blatant greenwashing (in other words, claiming falsely to be environmentally friendly).

SunZia backers, meanwhile, continue to pump their project as crucial for spreading renewable energy throughout the Southwest. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee the lines will carry anything but the same-old power produced the same-old way—namely, by coal and natural-gas plants.

Adding insult, this project—managed by an outfit called the Southwestern Power Group, and sponsored by companies including the Salt River Project in Phoenix and Tucson Electric Power here at home—would run two parallel 500-kilovolt lines from a proposed substation in Lincoln County, N.M., to another substation in Pinal County, north of Tucson. Getting from point A to point B would involve some 500 miles of maintenance roads, massive towers and 500-foot easements fragmenting critical wildlife habitat along the San Pedro River Valley.

Tucson Electric Power spokesman Joe Salkowski didn't return a phone call seeking comment. Nor did Tom Wray, SunZia project manager with the Southwestern Power Group.

Then there's the funky project-approval process, which hardly dispels a sense that the fix is in. Since much of SunZia would cross land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the BLM has become the lead agency in compiling an environmental-impact statement, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. That includes gathering abundant citizen comment; as a result, the BLM scheduled 10 public meetings in New Mexico and Arizona.

One was at Tucson's Palo Verde Magnet High School on July 17. Nearly 100 folks turned out, and they were itching for a meaningful public forum to vent their concerns. What they got instead was a tepid "open house" meeting with canned presentations and zero opportunity for audience discussions.

While the BLM may have met the letter of the law, critics say the tightly constrained meeting—complete with armed BLM officers—certainly didn't follow the spirit of the Environmental Policy Act. Still, this format seems all the rage among public agencies.

Just as often, however, this approach backfires. Consider a hearing on the proposed Rosemont Mine back in 2008, when the Coronado National Forest opted for the open-house approach: By meeting's end, a near-riot had ensued as frustrated retirees faced off with sheriff's deputies and the Border Patrol. In response, the Coronado was compelled to schedule even more meetings—with the public forum as their centerpiece.

Yet the feds never seem to learn. When audience members at the SunZia meeting discovered that they'd also be denied a forum, they proceeded to take over. The mostly middle-age rebels were led by Peter Else, a former UA administrator who retired to the San Pedro River Valley.

"The BLM was not allowing any public comments or questioning at their so-called public meeting," he recalls. "There were a lot of questions for the BLM about why they had greenwashed this project, and then not allowed the public to comment on it. We knew their claims of 81 to 94 percent of renewable energy (on the transmission lines) were pure bullshit.

"I finally told my girlfriend, 'This isn't right, what they're doing. I'm going to do some sort of assertive disobedience.'"

A few minutes later, Else rose and loudly addressed the restive crowd. "We know how to conduct a meeting peacefully," he told them. "What do you say we just have a little community meeting?" The audience roared in agreement.

And so, for the better part of an hour, the citizens held their own parley.

Later, I called Adrian Garcia, the BLM's Albuquerque, N.M.-based project manager for SunZia. During the interview, he was joined by a BLM handler, spokeswoman Donna Hummel.

Hummel did most of the talking. "We have gotten a number of calls," she said, "and it sounds like some of the opponents of the SunZia Transmission Project have kind of been trying to get their perspective out about the meeting in Tucson, as well as their opposition to the preferred route."

According to Garcia, the meeting format "was a judgment call on the BLM's part." He said he viewed such open-house forums—marked by colorful posters and one-on-one chats—as more effective than public forums.

Hummel elaborated. "We felt that the theater of those 'grab-the-microphone-and-talk-from-a-very-emotional-level' meetings were not going to help people construct comments that would be useful in the final analysis," she said.

As Hummel apparently sees it, Else and his well-studied peers—or the "opponents," as she profusely called them—were just too darned emotional to offer any constructive comments at the meeting.

Sandy Bahr is a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Arizona. She says such open-house-type meetings have long been the trend. "But they are obviously not consistent with the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act. At these public meetings—paid for with public dollars—you should be able to express concerns and ask questions. It's unfortunate (that agency officials) have become afraid of that."

Often, it's also ham-handed. Bahr describes a BLM meeting held near the Grand Canyon to discuss proposed uranium mines. Several Havasupai tribal elders journeyed all the way up from the canyon floor to speak their piece—only to be told that all comments were to be written.

That did not sit well with the elders. "So they basically took over the open house," Bahr says, "and they did a dance. It was one of my favorite moments."

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