A letter unanimously approved by Oak Ridge City Council on Monday asks federal officials to postpone a project to remove trees and other vegetation from the top of Pine Ridge for 161-kilovolt power lines that will provide electricity to a new substation at the Y-12 National Security Complex.
Among the City Council concerns: They only recently learned of the project, they don’t know what other options were considered, and they are worried about the visual impact of 79-foot transmission towers being located on top of Pine Ridge. Also, Council members said, there has been no public discussion about the project until two weeks before the logging operation was scheduled to start on Thursday, November 16.
The clearing work is part of a project to build a new substation at Y-12. It will replace an existing substation that is “nearing the end of its service life,” according to information presented to City Council and some community members. The tree removal will allow the 161-kilovolt power lines to be installed in the cleared area. The area to be cleared is on top of the ridge, about 2.1 miles long, and it will support a right-of-way that is about 100 feet wide. The electrical line would run from east to west on Pine Ridge, according to a report to City Council from Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson. All of the work would be on U.S. Department of Energy property, officials said.
The new substation will service all of Y-12, but it is being built as a subproject of the Uranium Processing Facility. It would be near UPF on the west side of Y-12.
Dale Christenson, UPF federal project director, presented information about the substation project to City Council during a work session on Tuesday, November 7. He said the logging work has to occur between November 16 and March 31 in order to not affect three species of bats in Tennessee. Completion of the work is related to the testing of equipment at UPF, Christenson said, and the substation project has to be done by June 2020. The UPF is expected to be completed by 2025 at a cost of no more than $6.5 billion.
Christenson said federal officials are working with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and he said the project, as presented to City Council this month, was the only option. TVA laid out options, and there are some restrictions at Y-12, Christenson said. Y-12 is a secure site that works on nuclear weapons components, among other activities, although it’s not clear if that work or site security affects where the lines might be located.
A week after the work session, on Monday, November 13, Council agreed in a 7-0 vote to send a letter to Christenson asking federal officials to postpone the tree-removal part of the project, which would be between Y-12 and two Oak Ridge neighborhoods: Scarboro and Groves Park Commons.
The letter that was approved by Council and sent by Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said the city’s leadership was only recently briefed on the plan.
“We believe additional time is needed for your team to provide and distribute substantive information to city residents and businesses about the project,” the letter said.
“We received information at the last minute,” Gooch said after the City Council work session on November 7.
Also, Council members voiced “strong concerns” during the work session about the adverse impacts of the project on the city’s ridge line and “view shed,” the letter said.
“The removal of mature trees on the top ridge line and installation of more than 30 79-foot transmission towers along a 2.1-mile corridor in the heart of the city will permanently alter the fabric of our community,” the letter said. “This iconic view shed represents one of the most attractive features for residents and visitors to our city. It is our understanding that three options were provided by TVA, and our community should be fully informed about the option which was chosen.”
“There is nothing we’ve been provided in terms of information or explanation as to why it had to go at the top of the ridge,” Gooch said. “What were the other options that were presented to them? They really didn’t have an answer to that.”
The ridgetop project is scheduled to occur at the same time as the final design work on a $10 million preschool in Scarboro that would be near the route of the proposed project, the letter said.
It said the Oak Ridge community strongly supports the ongoing modernization of Y-12 and the UPF.
“However, we are requesting that your project team review the feasibility of alternate routes for the electrical substation project that would reduce or eliminate the anticipated environmental and community impact,” the letter said. “The additional time is needed to demonstrate that all feasible alternatives have been fully explored.”
During the November 7 work session, Christenson said the project is within NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), and there are some limits on what he can say about it due to pending litigation. That was presumably a reference to a civil lawsuit that is related to the UPF and filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in July.
Federal officials said they had briefed city staff on the power line project in the past few weeks, as well as community leaders in Scarboro and the mayor and city manager when they returned from a trip.
But City Council members, including Gooch, wanted to know why they hadn’t heard about the tree-clearing project sooner, among other concerns.
“We should have known about this before two weeks ago,” City Council member Ellen Smith said during the November 7 work session. “The city had no involvement. The community has not had any involvement.”
Public support is vital to the success of the activities of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, Smith said during the November 13 Council meeting.
“This project as currently proposed is jeopardizing their community support,” she said.
Y-12 is an NNSA site, and Smith said federal officials need to consider revising the project to eliminate the public concerns that have been raised.
Oak Ridge City Council member Hans Vogel said he was surprised this particular project, although not the UPF, is as far along as it is. He said he was frustrated that the city was not copied on earlier correspondence between federal agencies, citing correspondence going back to April 16.
“I’m frustrated that this level of correspondence can go between those two agencies…and the city isn’t copied on that,” Vogel said.
Vogel said he is a former NEPA compliance officer, and NEPA requires community involvement.
A “Dear Neighbor” letter provided to City Council for the November 7 work session said the clearing work on Pine Ridge was scheduled to begin Thursday, November 16, and run from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. It was to start near the Oak Ridge Central Services Complex on Woodbury Lane and move west. It’s not clear if any of the work has started yet.
“The biggest impact to your neighborhood most likely will be the sounds of chainsaws and other equipment,” the “Dear Neighbor” letter said. “All work will be performed on DOE property, and there will be no construction traffic in your neighborhood. Tree and vegetation removal should be complete by March 31, at which time work will begin to install poles and a transmission line.”
Jim Hopson, TVA public relations manager, said the public utility is consulting with DOE, but this project is different than most because all of the lines will be on Department of Energy property so there are no right-of-way issues involved.
Hopson said he is not certain of who determined where the lines would be located or why they would be on top of the ridge, but he said there does have to be separation between existing lines. There appear to be power lines on both sides of Pine Ridge now, with at least one set on the south side of Pine Ridge along Bear Creek Road at Y-12 and several more on the north side of the ridge.
Hopson said TVA will continue to work with DOE and local elected officials, and with the public to try to provide answers.
Besides Christenson, the letter approved by Oak Ridge City Council on Monday, November 13, was copied to federal and state officials, including Bill Johnson, TVA president and chief executive officer; Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam; U.S. senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker; Congressman Chuck Fleischmann; Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally; Tennessee Senator Ken Yager; and state representatives John Ragan and Kent Calfee.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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