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Groups raise concerns over New Mexico-to-Arizona power line

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WASHINGTON – Environmental groups are expressing concerns about the preferred route for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, a proposed power line that would run from New Mexico to southeastern Arizona.

Supporters say the project could create as many as 6,200 jobs over its four-year construction period, but opponents worry that the line will cross important San Pedro River migratory bird sites and could harm archaeological resources and rural communities.

The Bureau of Land Management posted its final environmental impact statement for the project Friday, starting a 30-day public comment period. A final government decision on the project is expected later this summer.

But the statement is already drawing opponents.

“I hope they have provided more detailed information about why this project is needed, as well as how the project’s environmental impacts will be addressed,” said John Shepard, senior adviser for the Sonoran Institute. The institute expressed “significant concerns” about the project, despite its potential to increase availability of renewable energy.

The Wilderness Society also expressed “significant concerns” about the proposal.

“We support responsible renewable energy and transmission development and understand that every project has tradeoffs, but the proposed SunZia route in Arizona does not offer an acceptable tradeoff,” Alex Daue, a Wilderness Society renewable energy associate, said in a prepared statement.

But supporters said the project will provide long-term environmental benefits by helping chart a “new route toward a clean-energy future.”

“Projects like SunZia are critical for expediting renewable energy production, transitioning away from fossil fuels, and combating the effects of climate change,” said Gary Graham, director of the lands program at Western Resource Advocates.

Graham said his group is still concerned with some of the route alternatives, but “the hurdles are not insurmountable. Since “the developers have been really interested in minimizing those environmental impacts,” it is too early to offer criticisms, he said, and people need to see how developers are proceeding with the construction plans.

“We are trying to encourage environmental groups to take a look at the big picture, which is we are going to reduce carbon emission and build the transmission with renewable energy,” Graham said.

The SunZia project team, however, is confident it can overcome opposition.

“There will always be groups that oppose any transmission project out there,” said Ian Calkins, a SunZia spokesman. “Many of the groups that oppose projects like SunZia, are the same groups that are arguing the country needs more renewable energy.”

But environmental groups are not the only ones concerned about the power line route. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said he was disappointed by the BLM decision on the project.

“We have to protect the San Pedro River and keep in mind the communities that call this unique place home,” Grijalva said in a statement Monday.

He first raised concerns about the project when a draft environmental impact statement came out last year, and the final statement has not changed his position.

“The public demands a route with the fewest negative impacts to archaeological resources, migratory birds and rural communities,” Grijalva said. “I don’t believe this route fits the bill.”

In addition to the San Pedro River, the statement posted Friday also includes an alternate southeastern Arizona route through the Aravaipa Canyon region, which raised concerns with the Wilderness Society.

That route, the society said in its statement, “would fragment the second largest roadless area in the two-state region.”

Despite the concerns, Calkins said the team has heard many positive comments since the final statement was posted Friday. He said the BLM action sends a very strong signal that “the project has momentum and is seizable.”

“It takes so much time and money to get to a point like this, and we are extremely confident about the project,” he said.