Homer Electric Association (HEA) staff and several hired consultants were in Moose Pass on Nov. 6 at a public meeting on environmental impact studies for the Grant Lake Hydro Electric Project. HEA went to great lengths to show that the Project will have virtually no impact on existing salmon habitat, and that once the facility goes on line, it will actually help fish. Indeed, the current version of the project, which no longer includes a dam, involves the use of outflow from Grant Lake that would be run through an underground tunnel to a penstock and power house located downstream on Grant Creek while storing peak flows from the creek to benefit habitat in tributaries.
Regardless of the win-win image of the Grant Lake Project HEA attempts to present, however, we may never know what sort of impacts it will have on water and salmon until it is too late because HEA has elected not to participate in the formal Integrated Licensing Process under Federal Energy Regulatory Act guidelines. While HEA consultants have discussed the studies with state and federal agencies through a series of meetings held in 2013 and 2014, this does not include the give-and-take between the licensee, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, other State, Federal and tribal government entities, conservation groups and other stakeholders of the formal process. Also, the ILP process requires the licensee to create a study plan that includes an intensive schedule of reports, meetings and multiple opportunities for stakeholder participation in the process (in the form of comments, challenges to the studies and appeals).
Indeed, the one and only chance for the public input on the Grant Lake studies, was a public meeting sponsored by HEA in Moose Pass near the Project location last week. Needless to say, HEA’s decision to ignore the formal study plan process did not go over well with most of the public participants at the meeting, in part because Moose Pass and Seward, which are outside of the HEA service area, will receive most of the potential environmental impacts and none of the energy benefits of the Project. Neither did it help that, regardless of the fact that if public comment is to be allowed at such events this is traditionally stated in the meeting notices, the Moose Pass participants were not informed that they could comment on the studies until after arriving at the meeting.
HEA attempts to downplay the almost non-existent public process related to the Grant Lake Project, by observing that the opportunity for the public input on the licensing decision starts in earnest with the draft licensing application which will be issued in early 2015. This conclusion, however, leaves out the fact that FERC, generally relies heavily on the results of the study plan when making licensing decisions. In this case, therefore, once FERC receives the study reports drafted, coordinated and controlled almost entirely by Project proponents, any licensing decision, along with the irreversible impacts on salmon and water would, likely, be a foregone conclusion.
More importantly, the proposed project is all that remains of what was once a proposal to build a network of multiple hydroelectric that would have industrialized the headwaters of the Kenai River watershed. This proposal was dropped only after a grass roots effort rose up in opposition to the hydropower network and its impacts to natural flows, the ecological and hydrological health of tributaries and cumulative impacts downstream. In the absence of public participation in the Grant Lake project, therefore, could the original project concept rear it’s ugly head once again?
Also, when HEA representatives are asked whether they plan to have a public meeting in Homer on the Project, the response is that they have been communicating to the public through meetings with the chamber of commerce, Rotary clubs and tables at public events. Could it be that HEA’s reluctance to obtain input on the project is because it has reserved the right to sell the energy to outside utilities and the project, ultimately may not even benefit HEA members?
Either way, needed are additional public meetings on the study plan so that the public can make an informed decision as to whether the project is appropriate and beneficial for the Kenai Watershed and HEA customers.
Hal Shepherd is director of the Center for Water Advocacy in Homer.