The National Nuclear Security Administration has granted a 45-day discussion period for a project to build a new electrical substation at the Y-12 National Security Complex that could include logging work on top of Pine Ridge.
Oak Ridge officials had requested a 30-day delay of the logging work. City officials have raised concerns about that part of the project because they said they didn’t know about it until a week or two before logging operations were scheduled to start, there has been no public input, and cutting down trees and replacing them with transmission towers on top of the ridge would affect the view in that part of the city, including from two residential neighborhoods, Scarboro and Groves Park Commons. Pine Ridge is between Y-12 and the center of the city.
Oak Ridge officials have also said they don’t know what other options were considered, besides installing the high-voltage power lines on top of Pine Ridge.
The 161-kilovolt power lines will provide electricity to a new electrical substation that 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. UPF is the largest federal construction project in Tennessee since World War II, and it is expected to be completed by 2025 at a cost of no more than $6.5 billion.
Oak Ridge officials have emphasized that they support the project, but they don’t think the city has been treated as an equal partner on the electrical substation and power line portion of the project.
In a press release Tuesday, the City of Oak Ridge said the electrical substation project would involve clear-cutting 2.1 miles of mature trees along the top of Pine Ridge. The NNSA has delayed that project for 45 days, although some logging activity will still occur during that time.
But those initial logging operations will occur at a point farthest from the city, said Dale Christenson, federal project director in the UPF Project Office. Those operations “will not prevent NNSA from acting on any reasonable mitigation approach that may be suggested,” Christenson said in a December 11 letter to Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson.
During the 45-day discussion period, the NNSA will not take any action that commits it to “any particular approach to the siting of this transmission line,” Christenson said.
Logging operations, which would be on U.S. Department of Energy property, had initially been scheduled to start Thursday, November 16, and the NNSA had earlier agreed to a two-week delay. The logging work has to occur between November 16 and March 31 in order to not affect three species of bats in Tennessee.
Oak Ridge officials have said that the NNSA project would erect more than 30 Tennessee Valley Authority transmission towers that are 79 feet high along the top of the ridge after trees and brush are cleared.
But the city said Pine Ridge is supposed to play a vital safety role in separating the industrial Y-12 National Security Complex from residential and business areas, and the proposed project encroaches on that natural barrier.
The Oak Ridge City Council formally requested a 30-day delay during a special-called meeting on Friday, December 8. The request, which was proposed by Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, passed 7-0. The goal was to give the NNSA an opportunity to comply with its statutory obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and to allow the City of Oak Ridge to receive the technical information that was used in the decision to put the transmission lines on Pine Ridge, the city said.
“The city also strongly encouraged the NNSA to conduct a public meeting in the Scarboro and Groves Park Commons neighborhoods during this time,” Oak Ridge said in its press release on Tuesday. The public meeting is required by NEPA, Watson said in a December 8 letter to Christenson.
During the special meeting earlier that same day (December 8), Gooch also proposed that the City Council authorize Watson and City Attorney Ken Krushenski to “engage counsel to review legal options” in case the city and NNSA cannot agree on a solution.
“That does not mean that we are voting to file legal action against NNSA today,” Gooch said. But he wanted to know what options are available to protect citizens. Protecting citizens is part of the oath of office for Oak Ridge City Council members, and something they are required to do, Gooch said.
Council unanimously agreed to have Watson and Krushenski use an outside attorney to investigate the legal options.
Krushenski said he has been in touch with an environmental lawyer that has been used in the past. But going to court could stop this project for a while, Krushenski told City Council.
In his December 11 letter to Watson, Christenson said the Y-12 electrical substation project is critical to the Y-12 electrical systems and the continued safety and working environment of thousands of Y-12 employees.
“This project is also important to the timely construction of the Uranium Processing Facility and to the upgrade in working conditions and enhancement in carrying out NNSA’s mission that it represents,” Christenson said. “The completion of the 161kv transmission line is thus a matter of some urgency and will positively affect a great many people.”
The NNSA is confident it has met all legal obligations for the transmission line to be built on Pine Ridge, including its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act, Christenson said.
“That being said, NNSA is also committed to open and effective communications with the City of Oak Ridge,” Christenson said. “In that spirit, we are prepared to discuss with the city how we can improve our communications on this project. This would include providing additional information to the city as requested, and hearing any concerns or practical suggestions you may have.”
The 45-day discussion period, as opposed to the 30 days requested by the city, was granted due to the holiday season, Christenson said, and all feasible options for proceeding will remain open.
“We will give careful consideration to any reasonable proposals,” he said. “However, we ask you in turn to recognize that any alternative would need to be weighed against considerations of construction feasibility, worker safety, electrical reliability standards, project delays, and other important constraints.”
Other options discussed
Oak Ridge Electric Director Jack Suggs said he had suggested smaller structures for the power line project on Pine Ridge, but after calling the Tennessee Valley Authority for an explanation, he learned that the NNSA needs up to 70 megawatts of power with three new incoming transmission lines, rather than just two 161-kilovolt feeds. (By comparison, the entire City of Oak Ridge uses about 125 megawatts.) The three independent feeds, with three wires each, means the proposal he suggested last month, the smaller structures, would not be appropriate, Suggs told City Council members during the December 8 special meeting. The ridge top pole structures would have six conductors.
Council members have discussed other possible line locations both among themselves and with Christenson during a November 7 work session, but they suggested they have not received an adequate explanation of what other alternatives were considered and why they were rejected.
“We don’t know those answers,” Oak Ridge City Council member Chuck Hope said during the December 8 meeting. “That really frustrates the process.”
Officials said they would like a written explanation of the alternatives and the reasons for rejecting them.
“I’m disappointed that we’re not seeing anything like that from NNSA,” Oak Ridge City Council member Ellen Smith said. NNSA essentially said they didn’t document it, but just eliminated the other alternatives, Smith said.
The other alternatives discussed by City Council members have included, for instance, the north side of Chestnut Ridge, which is the next ridge south of Pine Ridge, on the south side of Bear Creek Valley.
Suggs said TVA has looked at four different routes, all from a line known as the Huntsville line east of the Y-12 property. Each of those four routes had conflicts with space or proximity to other feeds that made them unacceptable or very costly, Suggs said. Based on that, the top of the ridge was chosen, Suggs said.
But he didn’t know if another option might be available to the west, Suggs said.
Watson said the four alternatives included Bear Creek Road, one “in the middle,” one on the ridge line, and one on Chestnut Ridge.
“There were four things looked at, but we didn’t know that,” Watson said.
Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn said it’s possible a better solution could be found if more time was granted, and it’s unacceptable that the city was given such a short period of time. That could jeopardize other opportunities for the city and NNSA to work together in the future, Chinn said.
“We all want this project,” he said. But “this is not the way partners work together.”
Council member Kelly Callison raised a concern that a similar process could be used with the decision of where to locate the new U.S. Department of Energy landfill, the Environmental Management Disposal Facility, which could be located off Bear Creek Road west of Y-12.
The city said it had been given the option of selecting colors for the new power towers on Pine Ridge, but Council members suggested that wouldn’t be enough.
“I don’t see any amount of paint that is going to cure that or remedy that,” Council member Jim Dodson said of the large ridgetop transmission towers.
Smith said the U.S. Forest Service might have some good advice on aesthetics, given that “they do this all the time.”
The city said the substation project has been under development by the U.S. Department of Energy for at least two years, but the city was only informed of the plan a few weeks before the logging operation was expected to start. The 45-day postponement “will allow the city and DOE to have a more meaningful dialogue about this segment of the project’s impact on the community, both short and long term,” the city said. “The City of Oak Ridge has consistently voiced their support for the UPF project, recognizing its critical importance to our nation’s security.”
Council member Hans Vogel said some of the NEPA documents date back to 2016, and it’s surprising that the city was not copied on any of that dialogue dating back more than a year ago—rather than receiving information a week before the work was scheduled to start.
“There was a breakdown in communication,” Vogel said.
Krushenski said the NNSA has been discussing the project even longer, since 2015. The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, and Y-12 is an NNSA site.
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 an earlier city 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 earlier city press release said.
“This action represents a significant departure from prior communication practices,” Watson said then. “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.”
During the December 8 special meeting, Gooch said said he wasn’t sure if this is just a classic case of bureaucratic indifference, but Oak Ridge is different than other cities that host U.S. Department of Energy facilities because the major sites here are in the city. Among other concerns on this project, there has been no discussion with the communities close to the proposed action, including the Scarboro neighborhood, and the public input is being “put off on the city,” even though it’s the NNSA’s obligation, Gooch said.
The NNSA needs to have a public hearing in Scarboro and respond to questions about the potential health impact of the power lines, the economic impact, and the aesthetics, Gooch said.
“Where we are is unfortunate, as everyone said,” Gooch said during the special City Council meeting.
Besides advocating for the delay and exploring legal options, Gooch also proposed that the city submit a request to DOE that Oak Ridge become a cooperating agency in NEPA documents for actions taken in the city limits. As far as he knows, Gooch said, the City of Oak Ridge has never taken that action.
Council unanimously approved that proposal as well.
Residents also raise concerns
Four residents who spoke during the December 8 special meeting were also critical of the process used by the NNSA for the power line project. Two of them, Tom Row and Martin McBride, said the city should not back down. Row said NEPA has been violated, and he pointed out that General Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project leader who now has an Oak Ridge neighborhood named after him, set a guideline of keeping “your work in the valleys.” It should be separate from the citizens, who should enjoy a normal life, Row said, recalling Groves’ guideline. But the NNSA project would now cut down trees on the ridge top that is next to Groves Park Commons, Row said.
McBride suggested the city oppose the power line project until five criteria are met, including no impact on housing and re-establishing a connection between the project manager, City Council, county commissioners, and the Scarboro neighborhood.
“You are where you are because of the NNSA’s lack of planning,” McBride said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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