U.S. Department of Interior Weighs In

Wind, Water, Solar, Biofuels... Future "LENR"

The U.S. Department of Interior's position on
"Highwood Coal-Fired Generation Plant"

Mr. Richard Fristik
USDA, Rural Development, Utilities Programs
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Mail Stop 1571, Room 2237
Washington, DC 20250-1571
 
Dear Mr. Fristik:
 
The Department of the Interior (Department) has reviewed the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Highwood Generating Station, Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, Inc. These comments arrived after the expiration of the agency wait period following publication of the Final EIS. Please consider them to the extent practicable during your decision making process. Thus, the Department offers the following comments and recommendations for your consideration.
 
As expressed in our comments on the Draft EIS, the proposed construction of a coal-fired generation plant, four wind turbines, and related infrastructure partly or wholly within the boundaries of the Great Falls Portage National Historic Landmark (NHL) is an undesirable impingement on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail (LECL) and on this NHL. When viewed according to the National Park Service’s Organic Act of 1916, the National Trails System Act, and National Historic Preservation Act, the Department believes it is a degradation of the values for which the LECL and the NHL were established. These impacts can only be avoided by moving the proposed construction to a site other than Salem Township.
 
Background
 
The 1978 amendment to the National Trail System Act established the LECL along both the outbound and return routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. Under this law, the National Park Service (NPS) administers the Trail and has as its purpose the identification and protection of the historic route and its historic remnants and artifacts for the public enjoyment. The LECL is an administrative unit of the NPS, which extends the protection of the Organic Act (1916, as amended) to the Trail, specifically honoring the charge to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
 
 
The Great Falls Portage Route is among the few sections of the historic route of the LECL that can be identified and mapped using William Clark’s original survey notes. The hardships faced during this 31-day portage were one of the two toughest ordeals encountered by the explorers and threatened the success of the Expedition. The significance of the landscape on which these events occurred was recognized on May 23, 1966, with the authorization of the Great Falls Portage National Historic Landmark Review Project, which was revised and updated in 1976 and approved in 1985. The 1976 review report stated: “Since no permanent man-made evidence remains of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s campsites and exploration of the Great Falls area, the integrity of the historic sites is dependent on the preservation of the natural scene as it was when the explorers camped there and described it. Therefore, the sections of the National Historic Landmark with the most integrity are those which retain the area’s natural character and have the fewest man-made intrusions.”
 
For the eastern section of the National Historic Landmark:
 
“The boundary has been drawn roughly parallel to the portage route as delineated…, to include an area of 1,000 to 2,000 feet on both sides of the route through areas of virtually undisturbed terrain (generally from the lower portage camp area southwesterly to the eastern limits of Malmstrom Air Force Base).”
 
As recently as 2004, the NPS recognized the efforts of the state of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the USDA Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, The Conservation Fund, Pennsylvania Light and Power (Montana), and the R.K. Mellon Foundation to further protect the nearly unaltered character of this landscape through conservation easements on the eastern portion of the Great Falls Portage National Historic Landmark (NHL). This is very significant as the NHL has been reduced from the original nominated acreage due to man-made intrusion and subsequent losses of integrity in its western portion.
 
General Comments
 
Location: Construction of the Highwood Generating Station at the Salem location is a significant adverse impact that cannot be reasonably mitigated. Moving the footprint of the coal-fired generation structures outside NHL boundaries does not mitigate the impacts from the four wind turbines, water and waste water mains, transmission lines, service roads, and segments of rail line that will still be within the legally established boundaries of the NHL. Although there has been an effort to realign these features to minimize the impact, the presence of any one of these developments is detrimental to values of the NHL, as is the coal-fired generation plant. A total of 550 acres of the landscape would be irreversibly and irretrievably lost for the proposed construction (Pg. 4-142), which would impact a major portion of the eastern part of the NHL. This impact would be caused by the wind turbine array, two 100-ft wide transmission line corridors, a 1.7-mile fresh and waste water line corridor, a raw water corridor, and more than two miles of roads. Such a major disruption of the landscape could adversely affect the site’s eligibility for national landmark status by destroying the integrity of the site. This would be an
 
irreplaceable loss to the national heritage of our country. No other site along the LECL representing the hardships of the Expedition is so accessible to citizens of any ability.
 
We believe that additional locations in the Great Falls area outside of the NHL must be seriously considered. It is recommended the Final EIS be supplemented to consider additional viable alternative sites to avoid impacts to the NHL and to the LECL.
 
Recommended Alternative Site Evaluation Criteria:
 

  • No locations for the generation facilities within the boundaries of the NHL should be considered as reasonable alternatives. Priority should be given to locations that avoid both the NHL and its viewshed. The highest value of any potential location should be assigned to the location with the least visual impact to any portion of the NHL.
 
  • For any proposed location within the viewshed of the NHL, the Supplemental Final EIS should provide for a conceptual landscape plan developed to screen the generating facilities. Only vegetation that is native to the area and would have grown in that location at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition should be used.
 
  • Any proposed site within the viewshed of the NHL should be restricted to areas with existing viewshed disturbances, such as ranch houses, silos, industrial sites, and others already in the NHL viewshed.
 
  • Wind turbine locations within the NHL viewshed should not be considered as reasonable alternatives, as these impacts cannot be mitigated.
 
  • Take measures to locate and move underground transmission lines along existing telephone and transmission line corridors within the NHL and its viewshed.
 
Visual resources: The Bureau of Land Management’s Visual Resource Management (VRM) method for evaluating the impact on visual resources is used as the basis for evaluating the impact of construction on visual resources in the Final EIS. Under the higher standards of the NPS, and the standards used to measure the impacts to the NHL, the goal is to avoid any further impact to visual resources, regardless of the base state of the resource. The integrity of the NHL is based predominantly on the visual landscape qualities of open grasslands presenting no barriers to wind and weather.
 
The Final EIS states: “…the view north towards the Missouri – arguably a more important view than the view south across a rolling, cultivated plateau, because of the historic portage from the river commemorated by the NHL…” (p. 4-88). The view to the north only encompasses the beginning of the historic portage, which continued for more than 18 miles to the south and southwest and took the Corps of Discovery more than a month to complete. The integrity of
 
the views all along the route, as preserved within the NHL, is equally important to maintaining the integrity of the NHL. The Final EIS states that “considering the view towards the south, that the proposed construction within and adjacent to the NHL would result in a …change to landscape [that] is the focus of attention and becomes the primary focus of the viewer….”
 
Despite efforts to mitigate the impacts to the NHL viewshed, by moving the coal-fired generation station south and outside NHL boundaries, the proposed realignment of the wind turbine array is closer to the interpretive site at the “staging area.” This mitigation results in no net reduction in the visual impacts resulting from construction of the station.
 
The Final EIS also acknowledges the issue of light pollution: “An additional adverse visual impact would occur from HGS-induced ‘light pollution’ that would decrease the area’s natural dark skies.” The Final EIS describes downward lighting on the plant buildings; however, the 400’ coal stack, the 220-foot boiler stack, and the 300-foot wind generators must comply with FAA safety regulations requiring lighting of any structures over 200 feet in height. Compliance requires white flashing lights during the day and red aviation obstruction lighting at night. This would be clearly out of character for the visual integrity of the NHL.
 
The Final EIS concluded, “Thus, at the Salem site itself, the Proposed Action would entail a large visual change to a scenic setting of moderate value.” This determination of a moderate impact is based on the VRM, which we have noted is not an acceptable standard for lands administered under the NPS. The Department believes the visual impacts of construction are a significant adverse impact that has not been mitigated to a point of insignificance. The visual impacts will affect most of the 7,700 acres of the NHL and are an unnecessary intrusion into the LECL.
 
Soundscape: Any degradation to natural ambient sounds is considered an adverse impact for areas administered by the NPS. Locating the coal-fired generation plant further from the interpretive site might potentially reduce the noise levels at that site to below the 55 dBA daytime standard for residential areas, but this does not address the acoustic conditions around the wind turbine array that will be within the NHL. The Final EIS acknowledges this unavoidable significant adverse impact, but offers no mitigation: “While one significant, adverse noise impact is anticipated on the acoustic environment of the NHL, no mitigation measures are planned or proposed for either of the action alternatives” (p. 4-78).
 
Air quality impacts: According to the NPS Management Policies (2006), regardless of air class designation, all units of the National Park System will work to "preserve, protect, and enhance the air quality." Specifically, NPS Management Policies state: "Permit applications for major new air pollution sources will be reviewed, and potential impacts assessed. If it is determined that any such new source might cause or contribute to an adverse impact on air-quality-related values, the Park Service will recommend to the permitting authority that the construction permit be denied or modified to eliminate adverse impacts." The NPS seeks to maintain the best
 
 
possible air quality in NPS-administered areas to 1) preserve natural resources and systems, 2) preserve cultural resources, and 3) sustain visitor enjoyment, human health, and scenic vistas.
 
The Class II Area Significant Impact modeling results (Table 4-5, p. 4-40) demonstrate the potential significant impacts from particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxides to areas in proximity to the project (0.6 to 1.8 km). These impacts are acknowledged to be adverse in the executive summary of the FEIS (p. ES-9): “Overall air quality impacts from the proposed action would be adverse and most likely non-significant. HGS operations would result in long-term minor to moderate degradation of local air quality.” Since the proposed HGS is adjacent to and within the NHL, these significant adverse impacts will directly affect a national heritage area administered by the NPS. The NPS recommends the Montana Department of Environmental Quality deny or modify the construction permit to eliminate adverse impacts
 
Energy generation systems that rely on the combustion of coal produce more than one-third of the United States carbon dioxide emissions (DOE, 2001). The proposed construction of a coal generation facility will contribute to those emissions and, therefore, to global warming. Man induced contribution to climate change is in opposition to the NPS mission to preserve natural resources and systems. Release of mercury by the proposed HGS will also be detrimental to native plant/animal communities, which are to be sustained under NPS policies.
 
Most of Cascade and all of Chouteau Counties are within the Golden Triangle area known for its grain production. The cumulative effect of acid deposition from HGS on this these lands could have a long-term economic impact through soil acidification and nutrient cycling changes. Increased mercury levels in crops could also affect sales to international markets with limits on contaminant levels. Effects would be most acute in areas immediately surrounding HGS. This is of particular concern to organic agricultural producers in the area.
 
Projected mercury emission levels are not presented in the emission inventory section of the air quality permit requested from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for HGS. However, this pollutant may have the most long lasting and widespread effect of any stack emission. Any process that emits mercury contributes to a long-recognized environmental problem. In the case of the proposed HGS, there are also local concerns about the effect on water quality and disproportionate health and economic impacts on minority populations. The Chippewa-Cree Rocky Boy’s Reservation is both downwind and downstream of HGS. The subsistence lifestyle of many reservation residents could result in increased mercury exposure through aerial deposition on terrestrial resources and through accumulation in Missouri River fish.
 
Omissions: Section 3, Results and Discussion, is missing from Appendix E: Fish, Wildlife, and Vegetation Resources Inventory, in both the Draft and the Final EIS. The missing sections should address the specific impacts the generating plant, transmission lines and switch yard, water and waste water lines, rail spur and wind turbines will have on the immediate environment. Since many of these developments will be inside the NHL, this is a very serious omission.
 
The concerns of Native American groups were presented in comments during the planning process, but these remarks are not included in Appendix L of the Final EIS. No evidence in the planning record indicates that specific efforts to engage Native American nations on a government-to-government basis were made, which should have included groups outside of Montana with historic or cultural ties to the portage route around the Great Falls, such as the Shoshone Tribe.
 
General: The “mitigation” proposed for construction of the project includes monetary payments to local organizations and agencies; this appears in fact to be off-site compensation, not mitigation of impacts. Such payments may provide short-term benefits to the recipients at the expense of the NHL’s loss of integrity. The NPS, as stewards of the public heritage, represent more than 300 million Americans today and all generations in the future. It is their responsibility to protect the interest of all citizens by preserving the integrity of significant events, associated sites, and landscapes to the best of their ability. Construction of this project, with the support of USDA loans, on and adjacent to the LECL and the NHL is viewed to be a significant, adverse impact to the heritage of this country. This impact can not be adequately mitigated by the proposed mitigation, such as the selection of paint, landscaping, or monetary considerations.
 
Section 106 consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act: On June 29, 2006, the National Park Service Intermountain region was invited by the Rural Development Utilities program to participate in the Section 106 consultation process as the Highwood Generating Station would have an adverse impact on the Great Falls Portage National Historic Landmark. The Intermountain Region expressed their willingness to participate in the 106 consultation process in a letter of July 21, 2006.
 
The LECL was invited to be a consulting party on September 12, 2006. LECL participated in two face-to-face consultations with the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and others. In both cases, RUS attempted to limit discussion to mitigation of the Salem site despite attempts by several of the consulting parties to address such issues as inadequate civic engagement, lack of early coordination, refusal to address avoidance and minimization, provisions for a reasonable range of alternatives, and ineffective tribal consultation. The summary of the October 5, 2006, consultation was incomplete since it did not reflect the comments of the consulting parties who tried to address the aforementioned issues. When this issue was raised in the March 7, 2007, consultation meetings, RUS responded that it was incumbent upon the consulting parties to correct the record. The Department believes it is, in fact, the responsibility of RUS to provide an accurate record of consultation. For the record, LECL made comments in the October 5, 2006, consultation meeting concerning the inadequate civic engagement, a refusal to address avoidance and minimization, the need for a reasonable range of alternatives, a discussion of night sky impacts, the inaccuracy of Salem site legal description, the potential for delisting of the NHL, and the inappropriateness of proposed off site “mitigation.”
 
On March 15, 2007, in a teleconference, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation indicated that the Council will ask for a report under Section 213 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
 
The NPS agreed that it would complete the report, if it is requested. The RUS restated its commitment to issuing the Record of Decision by the end of March or first week in April 2007.
 
The NPS in their report to Congress on threatened landmarks for 2006, as required under Section 8 of the National Park Service Organic Act, raised the threat level for the Great Falls portage from “Satisfactory” to “Threatened” with the comment that the proposed development of the Highwood Generating Station would negatively impact the significant historic scene.
 
The Department has a continuing interest in working with the RUS to ensure that impacts to resources of concern to the Department are adequately addressed. For specific issues related to these comments, please contact the Chief of Integrated Resources Stewardship, Dan Wiley, LECL, 601 Riverfront Drive, Omaha, Nebraska 69102, telephone 402-661-1830. If you have general questions about these comments, please contact Ken Havran in the Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance at (202) 208-7116.
 
 
We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments and hope that they are useful.
 
Sincerely,
 
 
 
 
Willie R. Taylor
Director, Office of Environmental Policy
and Compliance

 
 
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