June 28, 2012 | Volume 42, No.26

Connelly project under fire at meetings

Alaska Power and Telephone officials heard opposition and a battery of questions about the proposed Connelly Lake hydro-electric project at public meetings in Haines Tuesday and Wednesday. About 75 residents turned out.

The meetings were to take comments on the utility’s draft study plan and on the type of process the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should use in licensing the project.

At Wednesday’s public meeting, critics took aim at AP&T’s characterization of the proposed project above Chilkoot Lake, as well as the company’s request for the traditional licensing process instead of a more rigorous and expensive integrated process.

“Your contention is that it’s not complex because studies have been done... but the studies have found it is complex,” resident Tom McGuire told AP&T project manager Glen Martin. Eric Holle described the integrated process as a predictable and timely one that would ensure resource protection.

Biologist Tim Shields, former head of the local watershed group, said distribution of fish in the Chilkoot Lake system varies widely between wet and dry years. “It’s an inherently dynamic and very complex system.”

Monte Miller, statewide hydropower coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, also challenged Martin and questioned the appropriateness of traditional licensing.

Miller cited the complexity of resource issues and the potential for controversy, two criteria for judging whether a project fits a traditional licensing format. “I don’t think this project is compatible (with traditional licensing),” he said.

He also countered statements by Martin that regulatory agencies preferred less rigorous licensing because they were backlogged with work. He said his office is working on 60 or 70 hydro applications but hasn’t missed deadlines.

Miller also disagreed with an assertion by Martin that under an integrated licensing process, an environmental assessment would be done by the company. He said FERC authors the assessment under the integrated model, a statement that matched one by a FERC official at AP&T’s Tuesday meeting with resource agencies.

Integrated licensing is FERC’s default, and a traditional process must be requested, Miller said.

Martin said AP&T’s responsibility was to provide its customers the least expensive power possible and that industries interested in locating here would need inexpensive power.

When pressed by questioners, however, Martin said he couldn’t say how much electricity would cost in Haines after construction of Connelly Lake, because that would hinge on what portion of construction costs would be grant-funded.

Martin listed the project’s top environmental concerns as dam failure, effects of sedimentation on fish, temperature changes in the river upstream of the lake, the effect of temperature change on fish, impacts on eagles, and access impacts due to road construction.

He laid out 11 proposed field studies the company would do, ranging from geotechnical study to ones of fish habitat, plankton, mountain goats, bald eagles and archaeology.

Several residents faulted study plans as cursory. Biologist Sally Boisvert said duration of tests to determine the effects of changes of temperature on fish would take years and archaeologist Anastasia Wiley said an ethnographic study should be done, in consultation with tribes.

Resident Katey Palmer said several parts of AP&T’s plans would violate the eagle preserve management plan. “You don’t belong in the Chilkoot Valley. It’s way too valuable in terms of resources to people and wildlife... You should look elsewhere.”

In an answer to a question later at the meeting, AP&T’s Martin said the company was optimistic about operating in the bald eagle preserve but he’d only spoken to preserve officials so far about access to sites to conduct studies under way.

Scott Carey said Lynn Canal Conservation “will do everything we legally can to stop this project. Chilkoot Lake is not negotiable.” He said previous efforts by AP&T to sidestep the FERC process and the utility’s request to avoid integrated licensing showed the utility could not be trusted.

Resident Tim McDonough questioned APT’s use of possible failure of an underwater cable linking Haines and Skagway power grids as a rationale for the project. “You’re still going to fix it,” McDonough said. If the cable fails and residents have to pay elevated rate for diesel-generated power for four to six months during the repair, that still would be preferable to developing the Chilkoot Valley, he said.

Georgiana Hotch, speaking as president of the Haines Alaska Native Sisterhood, pointed to fisheries in western Alaska where Native families weren’t getting enough salmon to feed their families.

“There is a short time families can catch their fish to feed their families in winter. The bottom line is we don’t want ADF&G or AP&T or any acronym to go in there to our fishes’ spawning ground,” Hotch said.

At Tuesday’s meeting held in Juneau and teleconferenced to Haines, AP&T came under fire from agencies for not consulting with them before developing its draft study plan.

AP&T’s Martin said he accepted that criticism and the company should have done more consultation with them. “I agree with them, but we’ve got a lot of experience with this type of process and in developing study plans and implementing studies. We have a strong sense of what they’re going to be asking of us.”

The deadline for comment to FERC on the licensing process is July 19.