Angoon hydro project hits hurdles

Problems with environmental statement the latest in a long line of obstacles

Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Several groups say the draft environmental impact statement for Angoon's proposed hydroelectric project is poorly crafted, marking the latest hiccup in efforts to bring a new source of power to a village plagued by exorbitant utility costs.

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They say the document lacks detail, analysis and the historical context needed to defend construction of the plant.

"I've reviewed a number of EIS's in my career. For some reason, this EIS is short on analysis," said KJ Metcalf, president of Friends of Admiralty Island and the national monument's first district ranger.

The comment period for the draft document ended Monday.

Angoon's Native corporation, Kootznoowoo, was guaranteed in 1980 the right to develop a hydro plant on Thayer Creek in return for supporting Admiralty Island as a national monument. Thayer Creek is 5.5 miles north of Angoon.

The plant would lessen Angoon's reliance on diesel fuel. But many details about the agreement were not included in the impact statement.

"I think one of the deficiencies is a discussion of the history. The draft itself doesn't talk about how this right was established," said Peter Naoroz, general manager of Kootznoowoo.

"It rather just assumes that we are here at this point. After that, it really never makes the economic case (for the project)," Naoroz said.

For example, in a discussion about potential effects if no plant were constructed, the document fails to explain why keeping the town on diesel is a bad idea.

"Do they really want diesel to be the source of energy?" Naoroz asked.

Related Story

Read more about the Angoon Hydroelectric Project in the related story below. Project began nearly 30 years ago.

Web Links

Final Draft of the Enviromental Impact Statement for the Angoon Hydroelectric Project

Thayer Hydro DEIS Comments June 9, 2007.doc

SEACC Comments on Angoon DEIS 7_9_07.pdf

Kathy Rodrigues Cover Letter Hydro DEIS.doc

Critics said it is not just the history that is missing, but several other key elements that would defend it against Outside groups who might protest such a project in a wilderness area without understanding the promises that had been made. The absence of that defense could make it vulnerable to litigation.

"We want to ensure we've got a good strong decision-making process here so that when other organizations hear or see this EIS we can tell them that it'll be OK. We can say it is a good project," said Buck Lindekugel, staff attorney for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Erik Spillman, the U.S. Forest Service's project manager for the document, said officials recognize people are concerned about the document.

"By talking to people out there, there are some things that we can and are pretty ready to address," he said.

He said he hasn't had a chance to look at the feedback and didn't have a number for how many comments were received.

"If it is stuff that reveals a deficiency (in the report), then we attack that and deal with that. That is where we are at now, just evaluating all that stuff," he said. The goal is to have a final document released by the end of 2007.

During a recent meeting with Forest Service officials in Angoon, community members spoke out in anger over the nearly three-decade delay in building the project. They're also frustrated with the various groups outside Angoon who have gotten involved.

In recent years, utility rates in the village have skyrocketed, leaving some residents with monthly bills as high as $500, adding fuel to the emotions.

The delay in constructing the project has been blamed on a variety of reasons.

"Number one is it is not a project by where anybody can make any money," Metcalfe said.

"No hydro power project in Alaska's history has ever penciled out," he said. "The federal government basically funds the construction of the project."

Angoon is more isolated than other rural Southeast communities that have hydro plants, such as those on Prince of Wales Island.

"You have an isolated rate payer base of 500 to 700 people," he said.

Also for many years, there were problems in determining what process the Forest Service should use to evaluate the project and determine whether it required a costly permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It does not.

"A lot of it was passed around for years and years," Naoroz said.

Engineering feasibility studies were completed. At one point in the early 1990s, Alaska's former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, a current presidential candidate, got involved. A consulting company he ran was hired for a substantial sum to do engineering work, but few results came from the arrangement, Metcalfe said.

Kootznoowoo's general manager at the time, Bob Manning, then died suddenly, leaving the corporation open for a change in direction, he explained.

Within the Forest Service, management changes over the years also have caused delays. Most recently, in 2005, a former ranger for Admiralty Island National Monument, Susan Marthaller, pleaded guilty to identity theft in a credit card scheme.

KJ Metcalf said these troubles may have contributed to the incomplete nature of the released draft environmental impact statement.

Once the plant is built, Kootznoowoo will sell the energy to Inside Passage Electric Cooperative, which will in turn supply the residents of Angoon with power.

"Businesses, particularly lodges, don't want to pay high costs, but what they hate more is unpredictable costs," Naoroz said.

Residents can expect to pay less for their monthly utility bills, around 37 cents per kilowatt hour, said Naoroz. Residents now pay 42 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 10 cents in Juneau. Some subsidies are available through the state, but they are not enough to stay in line with the rising costs.

But the primary benefit of the new hydro plant will be that it will establish a stable rate that residents can count on.

"I think people in Angoon know that it is more expensive to live in a community like Angoon than a community like Juneau," he said.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at 523-2276 or by e-mail at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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