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Northern NM power line debate splits pueblos, non-Indian residents

Proposed power line

Proposed power line

HERNANDEZ – A proposed 33-mile, high-voltage power line through parts of southern Rio Arriba County and northern Santa Fe County is the latest issue to create a split between the area’s Indian pueblos and non-pueblo residents.

Texas’ Hunt Power says its planned 345-kilovolt Verde Transmission Line will plug a gap in the existing regional transmission system, increase capacity and improve reliability. It would run from a PNM substation near the Rio Arriba community of Chili, close to where U.S. 84/285 splits into two highways, south to an existing substation roughly 12 miles west of Tesuque.


A Chihuahua wanders around a public meeting on a proposed power line through southern Rio Arriba County and northern Santa Fe Countyin Hernandez Wednesday night. The large photo at left was used by opponents to show the scale of the power line towers. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

About one-third of the route is on federal Bureau of Land Management land and most of the rest goes through three area pueblos.

At a BLM hearing in Hernandez north of Española on Wednesday night, many non-pueblo speakers expressed sadness or anger over Pojoaque, Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh taking unspecified payments from Hunt to allow the line to cross their lands.

Keith King of nearby La Mesilla, who signed, as well as spoke, to the crowd of about 125, drew loud applause when he asked his Indian neighbors to “learn from your brothers and sisters who are fighting for Mother Earth at Standing Rock, North Dakota,” referring to ongoing Indian protests against an oil pipeline, and to reject Hunt’s proposal.

He said the transmission line and its towers 90 to 120 feet tall – there would be five to seven per mile through a 150-foot right of way – would destroy views and landscapes that attract tourists and film crews to northern New Mexico.

Jan Brooks of Santa Fe said, “I’m dismayed that the pueblo community would capitulate to something so obscene” in return for money for rights of way or leases from Hunt. “This is a corridor to Bandelier (National Monument)” and the route runs near San Ildefonso Pueblo’s landmark and sacred Black Mesa, she said, although it would not cross San Ildefonso land.

Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria, speaking late in the evening, noted what he called “the negative energy” in the room at Hernandez Community Center.

He said the Santa Clara tribal council has supported the project for five years and that it was important for his pueblo to engage in economic development to benefit social services, education for its children and elder programs.

“We understand that there will be visual consequences,” he said, to some gasps among the crowd. But he asked, “How much have we (the pueblo) lost? Who has been here first? What have we given up? Talk about fences – we only have 55,000 acres that we can call home.”

“We respect the land,” he said. He said the pueblo has had a good working relationship with Hunt Power and “we’re very satisfied with the project,” adding, “This is an important opportunity to help all of us, it’s not just the tribes and pueblos. …

“I want to work together on this,” he told the crowd. “Now’s your chance.”

People shouted back, “Bury the line” and “Bury it,” meaning to put the wires underground.

“That’s what I mean, negative energy,” Chavarria responded.

Gabriel Montoya, speaking for Pojoaque Pueblo, said the project would bring economic development and “provide a power source to help ensure the future growth of all of our communities.”

Proposed in May

Hunt filed its application to cross BLM land – a few short sections of the route cross non-pueblo private property, as well – in May and there were two prior public hearings. But it was only this week that residents opposed to the project sent out alerts to news organizations and others. They say they have gathered 2,000 signatures on a petition against the transmission line.

Hunt’s Gabriela Canales said the 33-mile stretch of proposed 345kV line is the last uncompleted section of a high-capacity transmission loop running roughly from the Four Corners area to Albuquerque, and back through north-central and northwest New Mexico.

When the loop hits a smaller 115kV line that already exists along much of the proposed route, “it’s like a four-lane highway going down to two lanes,” creating congestion, said the company’s Paul Schulze.

He said that “when you improve the system, the whole region benefits” from increased capacity and reliability.

Canales told the crowd Wednesday night that new section could help avoid outages like one caused by a brush fire in 2000 that affected 1 million power customers and provide infrastructure for economic development by users such as data centers. Hunt would recover its investment – estimated at between $60 million and $90 million – from power wholesalers.

Canales responded to questions about health impacts from high voltage lines by saying Hunt would be required to follow government guidelines on height and right of way width, and that studies have found “no significant impact” from electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in residential areas, but opponents said experts have found EMFs from high-voltage lines are a carcinogen.

A ‘green’ project?

Hunt is also touting the line as a boost for renewable energy by providing more capacity for moving around power from solar or wind farms in New Mexico.

Opponents, though, lambasted the idea that the Verde Transmission Line is ecologically “green.” Seven-year-old Mazie Kostrubala, to huge applause, read a statement that said: “Verde means green in Spanish. Green projects are supposed to help the Earth, not hurt it. Green projects are not supposed to harm animals, birds, water, plants or people. Green projects should not harm sacred land. But this project would do all of that harm and more. … If Hunt Power was green, you would put the wires underground (beneath) roads already built.” Mazie said the proposed line should be called “The Very Bad Project That Will Hurt Everyone.”

On the other side, Margaret Campos asked the crowd to remember when opposition blocked plans for a regional landfill in the area 20 years ago. She said the lack of waste disposal capacity has blocked industry. “Educate yourself,” she said.

Elena Guardincerri, a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist who lives in Jacona west of Pojoaque, said the new power lines would be 200 feet from her house. She was among those who questioned any direct benefit for area residents from a line used to move power around the grid.

Guardincerri said the high-voltage line being so close to her home is a health concern, would ruin the landscape and drive down property values, making the house impossible to sell.

San Ildefonso off path

The line route appears to run through the populated Jacona section of northern Santa Fe County where Guardincerri lives because Hunt doesn’t have an agreement for using the most direct path between the two existing PNM substations, through San Ildefonso Pueblo.

South from Chili in Rio Arriba County, the line would parallel an existing 115kV line that, according to Hunt’s application to cross BLM land, has 55-foot towers. That path takes the proposed route through Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara land north and west of Española, and then to the Santa Clara Pueblo-San Ildefonso Pueblo line.

To avoid crossing San Ildefonso, the route takes a sharp jag east instead of continuing due south and, when it turns back south and west, it crosses through the Jacona-Jaconita area. Efforts to reach San Ildefonso officials for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

The BLM will continue taking public comment on the project through Jan. 5. Officials said it will probably be two years before a final decision is made to approve any version of the transmission line’s sections on public land or to go with a “no build” option, in effect rejecting Hunt’s application.