The Haines Borough Assembly Tuesday voted 4-2 to request the federal government require developers of a potential hydro-electric project above Chilkoot Lake to conduct additional studies, including examination of insuring against potential losses to fisheries and other values there.
About 35 residents turned out for the special meeting and all but eight of the 25 who testified were cricital of development of hydro at Connelly Lake, located four miles upstream of salmon-rich Chilkoot Lake.
The meeting was for the borough to formulate comments on a preliminary permit Alaska Power and Telephone is seeking from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for exclusive development rights at Connelly Lake.
The permit isn’t required for AP&T to conduct studies or to license construction, but assembly members characterized it as an opportunity to identify issues. "This is the time for the borough to present… its concerns on this project. It’s appropriate to let FERC know what we’re thinking about," said member Joanne Waterman.
Tuesday’s motion re-affirmed a 2009 resolution by the borough that gave AP&T generic support for developing hydro-electric sources, without endorsing a specific project.
It added requesting study of:
• Effects of dam breaks;
• Providing insurance against economic losses due to project failure;
• Effects of the project on pre-project baseline water quality;
• Effects of sales of electricity, at various levels, to cruise ships;
• Effects of exporting electricity outside the upper Lynn Canal; and,
• Options for partnering with the borough or state of Alaska (toward reducing power rates).
Assembly members said they would add wording to their comments stressing concerns over fisheries habitat at Chilkoot. They also said they’d schedule an assembly committee meeting with AP&T to discuss partnership with the utility aimed at "achieving the lowest rates possible."
Assemblywoman Debra Schnabel crafted the motion that was passed, after amendments were added.
"I’m not saying Connelly Lake is the answer. All we’re being asked to do is support many studies to see if this is even feasible," Schnabel said. "There’s nothing wrong with starting to think about the future… These are things we need to find out."
Member Hoffman said he supported hydro power, but not at Connelly Lake. He sought removing any mention of Connelly Lake from borough remarks, effectively endorsing other sources, including Schubee Lake, a site near Skagway.
"If we say we’re opposed to Connelly Lake and for Schubee, the majority of the community will be behind it," Hoffman said. AP&T holds a preliminary permit for Schubee but has said that site would produce less power and cost more to develop.
Member Smith said he believed AP&T had underestimated costs of developing Connelly, and questioned whether plans to sell surplus Connelly power to cruise ships docked in Skagway would materialize. "So many costs are so undervalued, it reminds me of building the road to Juneau. It’s a pie-in-the sky thing. AP&T’s bottom line is going to be power for profits."
Some who testified Tuesday said more studies would create momentum for development at Connelly, which AP&T has identified as its most favorable option for providing more power to Haines and Skagway.
"Studies can characterize risks, but they don’t eliminate it. More studies add mass and gravitas and makes it harder to say no even if the community really wants to say no," said Gershon Cohen. "The risks are all ours. The benefits are all theirs."
Others challenged a statement at the meeting by AP&T president Bob Grimm that Connelly was preferable to a site at West Creek in Skagway because it spreads the power sources to Haines and Skagway. Most of the town’s power now comes from two, Skagway-based hydro projects that send electricity here via a 16-mile undersea cable.
"We feel it’s important for reliability to have the next project at the Haines end of the undersea cable," Grimm said.
Resident Heidi Robichaud said AP&T had a "long history" of violating minimum in-stream flow requirements at its Black Bear hydro project on Prince of Wales Island. "How can AP&T prove to us there’s not going to be any problems? We need to let fish go where they need to go and do what they need to do."
Danny Gonce, power manager for AP&T in Haines, said after the meeting that the company received four letters from FERC in the early 1990s about not meeting a minimum bypass rate of 15 cubic feet per second at Black Bear. He said some readings showed flows were one-tenth of a cubic foot off the required flow.
Gonce attributed the violations to a faulty flow meter and a lack of documentation. He said Connelly provides only 4 percent of the flow of water entering Chilkoot Lake. Black Bear saw a significantly higher percentage, he said.
How the project would affect power rates was mentioned by several who attended. "Will (Connelly Lake) lower power rates. If so, how much?" asked Paul Nelson.
Gonce told the Haines Chamber of Commerce recently that it was too early to speculate on the effect of a new plant on consumer electric bills.
In a published statement last week, AP&T said a drawback to Connelly was that it would be "expensive" to build and produce surplus power in years immediately after construction. Selling surplus to cruise ships would help offset construction costs, the utility said.
Resident Leonard Dubber , who said he salmon fished for 30 years, spoke for the project, saying it could create more consistent flows into Chilkoot Lake during low-flow years. "I wouldn’t consider it worthwhile if it was going to sacrifice any fish." Blogger Roger Maynard said he circulated a petition last year that found support for Connelly Lake. "There are no facts to support that this is a trade-off between power and salmon," Maynard said.