Thursday, July 11, 2013
James A. Helwig, a Ph.D. geologist who has worked for decades as a university professor, researcher and consultant in the petroleum industry, said the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed SWEPCO high voltage transmission line in Northwest Arkansas is deficient in describing the engineering and environmental issues and risks associated with the possible routing of the proposed line through the White River Valley (WRV).
Helwig lives on Wolf Ridge and has joined in intervening with neighbors known as the Sims petitioners (Friends of the White River) in the proceedings before the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) to oppose segments AN and AO on routes 62/86—the portion of SWEPCO’s preferred route that would traverse the WRV for several miles.
Helwig said SWEPCO’s analysis appears to have been done without actually visiting the area, and the EIS omits available digital data from major watershed studies.
“The undisturbed habitats of high natural value, particularly when the route must cross the White River floodplain and traverse steep and mountainous karst topography, are inadequately documented,” Helwig said. “To me, the EIS is not acceptable in these foregoing regards, and is in fact risky.”
Helwig said the EIS uses boilerplate descriptions of the study area that imply a lack of Arkansas knowledge in detail.
“The EIS is much generalized and does not actually discriminate meaningful natural habitats and their sensitivities to construction or their distribution in the corridors,” Helwig said. “Two ways to assure quality of an EIS are to use more advanced datasets and analytical techniques, and perform field checking and scientific study of remote sensing classification work already done.
“The University of Arkansas, in a major undertaking, has constructed multi-parameter watershed maps of the entire state that are readily available on the web. The 308 ten-digit watershed units and the 1556 twelve-digit sub-watersheds have recently (2006) been delineated for the entire state by the Arkansas Office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Arkansas Watershed Information System provides more than 8,500 thematic maps and 22,300 summary reports in an accessible and easy to use format, which we believe will be of great value.”
Helwig said these maps that show details of topography, drainage and land use classification should be utilized in any EIS of any part of Carroll County. A second source of mapping is Ozarks Water Watch that has developed similar maps in GIS and pdf formats covering Carroll County and the entire upper White River basin. Also, The Nature Conservancy has developed karst sensitivity maps of northwest Arkansas.
“The failure of the EIS to use or even refer to these data bases and to geological maps, constitutes a failure of research and professional diligence, and reflects a lack of connection to the residents and scientists working in northwest Arkansas,” Helwig said.
Helwig makes the argument that both the engineering and the environment are at too high a risk to approve routing of the power line along the AN-AO segments of the 62/86 route. The issues are all about the geology: the floodplain, the karst, and landslides.
The White River floodplain was subject to extraordinary flooding in the springs of 2008 and 2011 (19 inches of rain fell between April 23 and May 24 of 2011) and to extraordinary drought in 2011 and 2012. “Consequently, we must determine if the proposed AO route would place tower foundations and the transmission lines at risk of flood or low water hazard,” Helwig said.
The principal problems are the crossing point of the river, and especially the routing in the flood plain. Water levels recorded by residents in the Cherokee Crossing area during the 2008 and 2011 floods indicate that line poles would be in the water in this area of the White River between U.S. 62 and the river crossing near Inspiration Point. Helwig said this would be dangerous and contradicts the claims of the EIS and supporting testimony.
What about karst? Northwest Arkansas is in a geological area known as karst, which has soluble rocks enabling the formation of caves, sinkholes, fissures, springs and underground rivers. Such features can be hidden under residual soils. Helwig said that raises two concerns regarding whether deforestation and the construction of towers 150-feet-tall and taller can be done without major disturbances of karst features.
“The principal concern with caves is that several endangered species, such as the blind cave fish and the Indiana brown bat, and other rare or unique species known from the Ozarks region of northwest Arkansas, are at risk from disturbance of their underground habitat,” Helwig said. “The Nature Conservancy has constructed a karst sensitivity map for our area which shows that segment AN of Rte. 62/86 is in an extremely sensitive area.” Helwig said their work is not recognized, and the Arkansas Cave Protection Act that regulates construction development around caves is also ignored by the EIS, which indicates that SWEPCO and its outsourced agents “are only engaged with our state via the Internet.
“A second karst concern is that circuitous underground drainage systems could be disrupted by surface runoff and erosion and herbicide application, and this in turn could impact water wells, springs or the White River,” he said. “Given these facts about the elusive and sensitive karst and that it is present but largely unknown or unstudied along segments AN, the most important question is whether SWEPCO can put in place a diligent process that effectively identifies and protects karst features, such as caves and springs, during construction and corridor maintenance.”
Helwig’s testimony includes exhibits of major landslides at the east end of Wolf Ridge and at Inspiration Point, and states that the EIS fails to recognize these critical features.
The EIS states: 1. Construction and operation of the proposed transmission line would not result in any significant impacts to the existing topography. 2. Construction would generally follow the existing contour of the land and, therefore, no extensive grading or earthwork would be necessary. 3. Construction could result in temporary and minor adverse soil impacts regardless of the chosen route. Helwig said none of these statements are true for the documented zone of slope instability.
Helwig said slopes in the area are steep and unstable presenting major “geohazards” to construction. He said that reinforces the question of what can be done to assure landowners and the APSC that land agents or survey crews have a capability to identify landslide or critical karst features on and near the ROW before the first bulldozer is deployed. Destroying the mature forest by removing mature trees anchoring the steep slopes is “asking for trouble,” Helwig said.
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