By Kent Karriker
In the December 2018 Voice, we first alerted you to the pump storage project that has been proposed by FreedomWorks, LLC for a site in Tucker County. After publication of that article, the Highlands Conservancy Public Lands Committee studied the available information and concluded that the project would have unacceptable impacts on the environment and should be opposed. The Executive Committee of the board agreed, and the Conservancy filed for official intervenor status.
The Conservancy also filed two comment letters during December and early January that outlined our concerns and stated our opposition. Reasons given for our opposition included impacts to protected species, impacts to scenic resources, impacts to restored mine lands, impacts to the Big Run Bog National Natural Landmark, and impacts of the proposed power line. Several federal and state government agencies (WV DNR, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Interior) and other environmental groups (WV Rivers Coalition, Friends of Blackwater, Sierra Club) raised similar issues. The President’s column in the January 2019 Voice updated you on these happenings.
Since publication of the January Voice, several developments have occurred that warrant another update to our membership. Although the official comment period for the preliminary Federal Energy Regulatoary Commission (FERC) permit ended on December 28, 2018, public meetings were held by Tucker County officials on January 9, 2019, and several state and federal government agency officials met with the applicant and representatives of the Highlands Conservancy and Friends of Blackwater on January 11, 2019. Also, FreedomWorks and Friends of Blackwater filed additional clarifying information into the project docket.
Perhaps the biggest development relates to potential impacts on Big Run Bog. The project application depicted the penstocks that would connect the two reservoirs as crossing the Big Run Bog National Natural Landmark, and it depicted the upper reservoir spillways draining toward the Big Run Bog. The application materials did not provide any clarifying information on the proposed design and construction of these facilities. Based on this information, the Conservancy (and all of the aforementioned government agencies and environmental groups) concluded that the project would have unacceptable impacts on Big Run Bog, which is a widely recognized ecological treasure.
FreedomWorks insisted that the project would not affect the bog, which caused both the Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service to file letters pointing out the fact that the applicant’s own maps appeared to show that the project would affect the bog.
Eventually the confusion was cleared up when FreedomWorks filed additional information pertaining to the design of the penstocks. According to this information, the penstocks would angle down from the upper reservoir such that they would pass under the bog at a depth of more than 400 feet.
The filing did not include any details on construction, but in response to questions that I asked at the meetings on January 9 and January 11, FreedomWorks CEO Tim Williamson stated that the design, construction, and eventual decommissioning of the penstocks would not require any activity at the surface. Williamson also stated that the proposed spillway locations have been moved such that they would not drain toward the bog. He presented maps showing new spillway locations draining northward and southward, although these maps have not yet been filed in the project record. He has also dropped “Big Run” from the name of the project in an attempt to eliminate the project being associated with impacts to an iconic ecological preserve.
So what does all this mean for Big Run Bog? This author’s assessment is that, if all of Williamson’s information checks out, it appears that the project would not impact Big Run Bog. We will, of course, want to make absolutely certain that the information does indeed check out, should the project proceed to the feasibility study phase. At this point, not enough detail has been provided to confirm lack of an impact.
Other consequential developments have occurred pertaining to the potential for old mine tunnels to exist under the proposed upper reservoir site. Mr. Williamson has said multiple times that the presence of such tunnels would kill the project. At the agency/stakeholder meeting on January 11, he further stated that FreedomWorks would assess this issue before proceeding with any other studies.
At the meetings on January 9 and January 11 and in a docket filing a few days later, Friends of Blackwater presented a map that depicted the upper reservoir site as lying over undocumented mine tunnels. This map was based on information that Friends of Blackwater obtained from WV DEP’s Abandoned Mine Lands program. “Undocumented” means that the tunnels are not depicted on the official maps of known mine works, but they are suspected to occur based on the location of the coal seam.
FreedomWorks responded with a filing that depicted only the “documented” official maps of the old mine works, none of which are known to occur under the upper reservoir site. From this FreedomWorks concluded that old mine works likely are not a problem. My sense is that FreedomWorks is sidestepping the issue in an attempt to keep the project alive. Friends of Blackwater’s information appears to have come from a reputable source, so it needs to be addressed prior to proceeding any further with this project.
FreedomWorks and Friends of Blackwater also engaged in dueling filings over the issue of visual impacts. Friends of Blackwater filed a map showing that project facilities would be visible from several key viewpoints, including Olsen fire tower, the Blackwater Falls lodge overlook, and the iconic overlook at Lindy Point. However, the filing did not include an explanation of the data sources or methodology used.
FreedomWorks responded with a filing that appears to show that topography would prevent the upper reservoir from being seen from the Blackwater Falls lodge and Lindy Point. (Everyone seems to agree that the upper reservoir would be visible from Olsen fire tower, which is very close to the proposed reservoir site.) FreedomWorks’ filing was created using Google Earth, but it, too, does not include an explanation of data and methodology. Given the lack of information on the methods used to generate the conflicting filings, my assessment is that the jury is still out on this issue.
Other changes relate to the proposed new power line, which would connect the facility to the larger electric grid. The application showed the proposed new line running through the Coketon historic site, crossing the north fork of Blackwater Canyon, and crossing the Little Canaan Wildlife Management Area on its way over to an existing substation at Mt. Storm. The Conservancy and others pointed out the likelihood of major environmental impacts along this route.
Therefore, FreedomWorks presented maps at the January 9 and January 11 meetings that depict the new line in a completely different location. To my knowledge, these maps have not been filed into the project docket. As envisioned on the revised maps, the new line would be co-located with an existing line that runs along Highway 219 to a connection with the grid located northwest of the town of Thomas. Presumably this route would involve far fewer environmental impacts, although no one has presented any specific information to confirm or refute this presumption. Should the project proceed to the feasibility study stage, we will need to see such information.
Another issue of major importance is the impact that the project’s lower reservoir would have on Mill Run, which is a native brook trout stream flowing through National Forest land. Because of these characteristics, it is designated as a Tier 3 stream by the state. Tier 3 streams are “outstanding national resource waters” that are supposed to receive the state’s highest level of protection from impacts.
The state regulations that govern Tier 3 streams state: “In all cases, waters which constitute an outstanding national resource shall be maintained and protected and improved where necessary.” In this case, the project would drown a large portion of Mill Run under the lower reservoir, and the DNR has already determined that the native brook trout population likely would not be sustained.
On the surface, it would appear that these facts should kill the project, at least at its current proposed location. During the January 11 meeting, the state representatives noted that the regulation does not allow any degradation of Tier 3 streams. However, they encouraged further talks between FreedomWorks and the state to determine how to approach the anti-degradation review of the project. We will need to stay alert for any indications that the state might be inclined to allow the impact in spite of the language of the regulation.
One final issue to cover involves the source of the power that would be stored by the facility. Several environmental groups raised concerns that the project could be used store energy produced by coal-fired power plants, thereby prolonging society’s dependence on that dirty source. FreedomWorks maintains that the facility would only store electricity that is produced by renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Williamson presented information at the January 9 meeting that purported to show the electricity coming from a variety of wind and solar sources across the eastern U.S.
Ominously, he also stated that the project would purchase electricity from Highland New Wind. That facility in Highland County, Virginia, was permitted more than ten years ago but never built because of a lack of financing. It has been vigorously opposed by citizens in Highland County and neighboring Pendleton County, West Virginia. A power purchase agreement might attract the investment it has lacked so far. The environmental community has reason to fear that two questionable projects, not viable separately, could facilitate each other’s construction.
As the dust begins to settle on some of these issues, the Highlands Conservancy remains officially opposed to the proposed pump storage project. Although the nature of the issues is changing as more information comes to light, it is clear at this point that the project would cause the loss of 1,000 acres of National Forest land, as well as the loss of a Tier 3 native brook trout stream. These losses are too much for us to swallow, not only because of the direct impacts, but also because of the bad precedent they would set for other project proponents who seek to exploit the public domain for their own financial gain. As we stated in our initial comment letter to FERC, the Conservancy believes that a shift to renewable energy sources is critical to the long-term health of the Earth, but we also believe that renewable energy must be produced in a way that does not negatively impact sensitive environmental resources, and it must not result in the construction of industrial-scale infrastructure in natural areas.
So what happens next? Right now we are awaiting FERC’s decision on the preliminary permit application. Mr. Williamson said that FERC has told him they will not render a decision until after the government shutdown has ended. Although FERC is not affected by the shutdown due to their non-appropriated funding source, they do not want to issue a decision while other federal agencies are unable to complete their coordination on the permit application.
The Highlands Conservancy remains convinced that the preliminary permit should not be issued due the unacceptable impacts that the project likely would cause, if constructed. Although the preliminary permit would not authorize any construction, it would be the first step in the process toward construction of a project that we already know should not be built.
Should the preliminary permit be issued, it would enable FreedomWorks to (1) essentially stake its claim on the site so that no other company can propose a similar project there, and (2) proceed with studies of project feasibility and environmental impacts. At that stage they would need to apply for a special use permit from the Forest Service to authorize studies on National Forest land. A National Environmental Policy Act analysis would be required, although it is unclear at this point which federal agency would take the lead on that analysis.
Opportunities for public input would occur at several points in the process. The Conservancy will remain engaged in the process and will alert you when opportunities for input arise.