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Forest Service is all ears at latest Cogentrix meeting

Because the power plant’s proposed utility lines pass through national grasslands, the federal agency is charged with issuing Cogentrix permits
News Editor
   It was the Forest Services' turn to play host to a meeting regarding the controversial Cogentrix power plant on Feb. 14 as officials with the agency asked the public for input on the utility lines that will connect to the proposed 980-megawatt power plant.
   Cogentrix must receive permits and easements for its transmission, natural gas and water lines because they cross the Crooked River National Grassland area, which the federal agency administers. The North Carolina-based power company's application for the three utility connections to its Grizzly Power Project is separate from its 1,500-page application to the Energy Facility Siting Council on Nov. 31 for a site certificate.
   The meeting was the first step in the review process for the Forest Service, which is expected to grant or deny the permits by the end of September.
   "Our process doesn't call for a public hearing," Project Manager Rod Bonacker told the roughly 125 attendees at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. "We're at the point where we really want to pick your brains.
   "We get to ask you the questions and you'll give us the answers."
   Cogentrix's electrical transmission line would connect its power plant to the Western Regional Power Grid, a network of plants and power lines that supply the Western states. It would require a 150-foot-wide, 3,000-foot-long easement and would run parallel to Ramms Road. Three 144-foot-high lattice towers would support the overhead electrical line.
   The buried natural gas pipeline also would run along Ramms Road. The requested easement would be 15 feet wide and approximately 7,000 feet long.
   The buried water pipeline would run across private and public lands from a well field in the Opal City area. From there, it runs across Highway 97 and the grassland to the power plant along Norris and Laurel lanes plus Jasper and Ramms roads. The requested easement would be 15-feet wide by approximately 74,600 feet long.
   The water and gas pipelines would be installed in 36-inch-wide trenches at a depth of approximately 4 feet, within existing road right-of-way.
   Several Forest Service officials posted at different stations entertained separate audiences for more than an hour as part of the agency's "scoping" process. Questions and concerns from citizens that must be addressed in the agency's final Environmental Impact Study were gathered. The topics ranged from impacts on wildlife and cultural resources to scenic quality.
   As the meeting wore on, the walls began to disappear under large white sheets tacked to the wall. On these sheets, citizens listed their numerous concerns. Most attendees expressed their opposition to the plant.
   Laura Dove-Kroo, who owns 40 acres in Osburn Canyon, got her concern regarding how the wells and power lines could disturb wildlife up on one white poster sheet.
   "We have eagles flying through our canyon," she said.
   County resident Jan Miller was asked to circle the areas eagles and elk frequent on a map after she told a Forest Service official she often saw them in the area.
   "How do we circle where eagles and elk go?" Miller asked.
   Under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, the Forest Service is required to consider the effects of noise, light and traffic disturbances on wildlife and the recreating public.
   Bonacker said when citizens submit public comments they will be addressed. "We don't say, `Thank you very much and put them in a drawer,'" he noted.
   Paul Claeyssens, a Forest Service archaeologist listened to concerns about possible damage to cultural resources, including ancient native artifacts. He said there are sites that potentially could be affected by the water pipeline.
   "There are lots of archaeological concerns," Claeyssens said. "People want to know whether we know were all of the sites are. But at this point, it doesn't appear that cultural resources are going to be deal breakers."
   Cogentrix Vice President of Development Frank Erwin said he was confident that the utility lines, specifically the buried water and natural gas lines, would have minimal impact on the environment.
   "Once they're in you won't even know they're there," he said.
   The Forest Service will continue collecting comments throughout most of its review process, Bonacker said. The agency now will take the comments gathered during the Valentine's Day meeting and begin drafting its analysis. It hopes that a first version of its Environmental Impact Study can be completed and presented by mid-June.
   The Forest Service then will review public comment on the draft and prepare a final version before October. Bonacker said the agency could issue three separate or one single permit for the utility connections. The public will have 45 days to appeal.