The City of Oak Ridge has asked federal officials to consider an option that minimizes the impact of new high-voltage power lines planned on top of Pine Ridge, which is between the center of the city and the Y-12 National Security Complex.
The 161-kilovolt power lines will provide electricity to a new substation at the Y-12 National Security Complex. 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, federal project director for the UPF, presented the project to Oak Ridge City Council during a November 7 work session. Less than a week later, at its November 13 meeting, City Council unanimously approved a letter that requested a postponement of tree-clearing work that is part of the project in order to discuss alternatives. The National Nuclear Security Administration agreed to a two-week delay, the City of Oak Ridge said in a press release Monday. Y-12 is an NNSA site.
In order to install the power lines, federal officials plan to remove trees and other vegetation from the top of Pine Ridge. The ridge is between Y-12 and two Oak Ridge neighborhoods: Scarboro and Groves Park Commons.
“Several weeks ago, the NNSA advised of proceeding with plans to clear cut 2.1 miles of mature trees and vegetation along the crest of Pine Ridge,” the city’s press release said. “More than 30 79-foot Tennessee Valley Authority transmission towers will be erected along the top of the ridge after clear cutting occurs. Although DOE has been planning this initiative for at least two years, the city has not been engaged in the process or studying electrical options for serving the new Uranium Processing Facility.”
DOE is the U.S. Department of Energy. The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within DOE.
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.
In the press release Monday, the City of Oak Ridge said it has responded with an option to consider, hoping to minimize the project’s impact, because of significant public interest.
“While the City of Oak Ridge is appreciative of the brief delay and an additional briefing by Christenson on November 29, city officials are still awaiting a response to questions raised at that meeting,” the press release said.
DOE has offered to consider painting or tinting the proposed poles as one way to mitigate the effects of these lines in a 100-foot-wide clearing on the ridge line, the press release said. The city has inquired as to the feasibility of an alternate route using a different type of pole structure that would reduce height and reduce clearing width, the release said.
“The City of Oak Ridge has been a supportive partner in the development of the UPF project on many fronts,” Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said. “This action shows disregard and a lack of attention to the planned directions of this community and its 30,000 citizens. Public engagement is essential for the many demands placed on the Oak Ridge community and is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The lack of engagement observed thus far is certainly counter to the principles of intergovernmental cooperation that DOE continues to espouse. This project will permanently scar the beautiful viewshed that attracts residents, visitors and their investment to our community.”
DOE issued a “Categorical Exclusion Determination Form” in April 2016 stating that the proposed project would not “have the potential to cause significant impacts on environmentally sensitive resources,” and that “there are no extraordinary circumstances related to the proposal that may affect the significance of the environmental effects of the proposal,” according to the city’s press release. The document, prepared by a DOE official in NNSA’s office in Amarillo, Texas, was not distributed to the City of Oak Ridge or other affected stakeholders, the press release said.
“This action represents a significant departure from prior communication practices,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said. “The DOE has always distributed NEPA documents to federal, state, and local officials, and in most cases communicated directly with the city before initiating any action. We obviously disagree that the route selected for this project does not incur environmental, social, and economic damage to our community. We recognize the importance of the UPF project to our nation’s interests. However, the federal government should have taken the time to consult with their host community.”
The city said a “Citizen’s Guide to the Environment,” written by a large group of local citizen volunteers, acknowledged as early as 2002 that Pine Ridge plays a vital safety role in separating the industrial Y-12 National Security Complex from residential and business areas.
“The proposed project encroaches on this natural barrier,” the press release said.
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.
Christenson told City Council during the November 7 work session that 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 in November, 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.
The new electrical substation at Y-12 will replace an existing substation that is “nearing the end of its service life,” according to information presented to City Council and community members.
But last month, Gooch said federal officials hadn’t provided information or explained why the power lines had to go on top of the ridge. It’s not clear if that information was offered at the November 29 meeting.
City officials said the ridgetop power line 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.
In November, 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 DOE 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 are 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.
See previous story here.
See the city’s letter to Christenson on the Y-12 electrical substation project here.
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