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DoD to BLM: SunZia route threatens Whites Sands missions

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With decision day on the SunZia transmission line fast approaching, the U.S. Army remains adamantly opposed to the project’s potential encroachment on White Sands Missile Range.

The U.S. Department of Defense warned early this year that a 45-mile stretch of the proposed 500-mile, high-voltage transmission system could disrupt military operations in White Sands’ northern extension area.

But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management retained the proposed route in a final environmental impact statement it published in June.

Now, with the BLM’s September target for a final “record of decision” nearing, the Army is again warning that the project could endanger national security because transmission lines could interfere with missile tests and low-flying military aircraft.

In an Aug. 7 letter to the BLM, DOD Acting Deputy Undersecretary John Conger said the Army “officially objects” to the proposed route through White Sands.

“If the bulk power transmission line is constructed along the selected route, it would preclude our capability to fully test the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Architecture and other weapons systems under realistic threat environments,” Conger wrote.

“This testing is absolutely necessary and it should be clearly understood that no other location exists in the United States where it is possible to conduct flight tests with the footprint requirements these weapons systems present.”

Conger said the BLM has not adequately analyzed the risks to national security, nor vetted all reasonable alternatives as required under the national Environmental Policy Act.

The DOD has proposed instead to route the line north of the White Sands extension area. In addition, Conger said the BLM should examine “substantial new information” compiled by a DOD Technical Working Group that indicates the feasibility of burying a segment of the transmission system as an alternative to re-routing the above-ground line further to the north.

But SunZia spokesman Ian Calkins told the Journal that putting 500-kilovolt lines underground is “neither technically feasible nor economically reasonable.”

“SunZia has not yet seen the referenced report from the DOD Technical Working Group and will have further comment following that review,” Calkins said in an email.

SunZia project manager Tom Wray has stated publicly on various occasions that any alternative route could kill the $1.2 billion project because it would necessitate another environmental study that could take years to complete. SunZia has been pursuing the project since 2008.

The dispute has raised concern among New Mexico’s congressional delegation, given the economic importance of White Sands to New Mexico and the potential impact on national security.

“I hope SunZia recognizes how damaging their proposed route will be to national security,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., in a statement. “I urge them to take the advice of the (Technical Working Group) report and take every possible action to alter the route.”

The BLM, which has said that relocating the route further north of White Sands would encroach on federally protected wildlife areas, said it’s working with the DOD.

“We are currently reviewing the letter, and we appreciate their input,” BLM spokeswoman Amy Krause told the Journal.