COLUMBUS, Neb. (AP) – A federal judge in Colorado has thrown out a key permit for Nebraska Public Power District’s 225-mile R-Project transmission line, which would run from the Gerald Gentleman power station near Sutherland to Thedford and on east to Holt County.
U-S District Judge William Martinez issued a 116-page opinion with 3 reasons for vacating the permit issued by the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service allowing the “incidental take” of the endangered American burying beetle,
None of the reasons cited by the judge dealt directly with the beetle itself. One reason is language in an April 2019 “programmatic agreement” covering multiple issues.
Another is that the agency failed to adequately consider the project’s impact on historic ruts from wagons on the Oregon and California Trail near Sutherland. Judge Martinez cited a March 2016 email from the National Park Service warning that the R-Project route crossed the trails at a “particularly sensitive location.
The third reason was that Fish and Wildlife failed to analyze “potential wind-turbine development” in Antelope County, near the line’s proposed eastern end. Opponents, including 43rd District State Senator Tom Brewer, claim the main reason for the project is to serve future wind farms in the Sandhills.
NPPD says the new transmission line is needed to increase electric reliability to customers, especially in the Sandhills during hot summers and high irrigation times when demand for power is the heaviest.
Judge Martinez rejected most of the claims made by opponents in their challenge of the permit, but his overall action sends the permit request back to Fish and Wildlife for reconsideration. He refused to leave the permit in effect until the burying beetle issue is resolved because NPPD could have continued work on the project.
NPPD spokesman Mark Becker says the ruling is narrow and that the utility is following all needed steps to protect birds, plants, wildlife, and insects – adding that NPPD is “doing everything we believe is the right thing to do.”
Becker says NPPD has been doing some preparation work for the R-Project including fencing, tree removal, and entryways but with no physical construction on the line itself. He says it will take at least 2 years to build the line from whenever the project wins final regulatory approval.