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General: SunZia impairs mission

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – The commanding general of White Sands Missile Range says there is no question that the proposed siting of a renewable energy transmission line across the northern extension of the huge military testing site would impair national defense missions.

Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham said in an interview here Thursday that the Department of Defense is trying to find a “win-win solution” on the controversial SunZia transmission line proposal. But she also said: “It’s going to have a negative impact on our mission.”

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that allowing the line will mean the end of White Sands Missile Range,” Bingham said after addressing the Domenici Public Policy Conference at New Mexico State University. “But it will mean the end of some of the programs.”

SunZia developers are planning a $1.2 billion, 550-mile project to carry renewable energy from central New Mexico to Arizona.

The proposal has SunZia crossing the 40-mile deep “northern extension” of the White Sands range.

Bingham said high-altitude plane and missile testing is conducted daily over the area, while low-altitude testing is done 25 to 40 times a year.

As the proposed line is now sited, Bingham said, “There’s no way to do my missions with some of the weapons systems we’re currently testing, now and into the future, because they would strike the line.”

“I’m talking about my weapons testing,” the general said. “It would limit our use of the area by 30 percent.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management published a final environmental impact statement on SunZia in June, but the DOD wants the BLM to make changes to it. The U.S. Department of the Interior, the BLM’s parent agency, has been discussing potential mitigation measures with the DOD to avoid impacts on White Sands’ testing capabilities, but SunZia developers say reopening BLM debate over the transmission line could kill the project, since approval of the environmental impact statement is already years behind schedule.

The BLM is expected to decide on the issue later this month or in early October.

Gov. Susana Martinez has joined the DOD in voicing concerns about the proposal, saying it would disrupt military activities, threaten national security and damage southern New Mexico’s economy.

Bingham did not address the SunZia proposal in her Domenici conference speech, but responded to Journal questions later.

She said the DOD’s official position, so far, is, “We’re not opposed to SunZia. … The point of contention is the siting. … That’s what we are trying to find a win-win solution for.

“Air and missile defense programs require use of that area … and because they involve low-flying missiles, you can imagine that a power transmission line would impact (that mission),” she said.

“As it relates to siting the power transmission line – where they want to site it – it literally will have the effect of reducing my using that area by 30 percent.”

Bingham noted that White Sands is the largest DOD test area in the country, making it irreplaceable for certain kinds of military testing.

“The adversarial threats are getting longer, not shorter,” the general said, referring to air and missile attack threats. “So, we need every inch of the range.”