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FERC has received numerous letters commenting on AEA’s request to extend the Susitna Dam study report timeline

by Phillip Manning ~ January 24th, 2014

Individuals, NGOs, and some federal groups are expressing concerns over the Alaska Energy Authority’s request to extend the timeline for studies on the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project.  So far, all of the respondents have varying degrees of concerns with the request.

The request for an extension was made to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on January 6th.  FERC is the government body that determines whether projects like Susitna-Watana receive licenses. AEA is asking that FERC allow a 120 day delay in releasing the initial study reports on the mega-project. According to the current timeline, those reports are to be released on February 3rd.  AEA says it would still release the reports on February 3rd, but they would be labeled as drafts.  The final reports would then be released in early June.

AEA gives three reasons for the request.  The first is funding. After the announcement that Governor Parnell is requesting less than ten percent of the funding needed to complete pre-licensing studies for the project, AEA says that more time is needed in order to prioritize the studies that still need to be conducted.  In addition, AEA says an extension would allow more time for everyone involved in the licensing process to review the 2013 study data.  Finally, AEA says that more time would be available to plan the next field season, which would move to 2015.

The letters written in response vary in their opinion regarding AEA’s request, but a common theme that runs through nearly all of them is that stakeholders should have more time to review the final study report.  Many of the letters, including one from the Talkeetna-based Susitna River Coalition express concern that June represents a very busy time for many individuals and businesses in Alaska, and that reviewing the data collected in 2013 during the summer season would be unfeasible.  Some federal agencies also share similar concerns, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Other response letters, particularly some from individuals in the Susitna Valley, say that the request for an extension illustrates that the licensing process and timeline being used are inadequate for what would, if built, become one of North America’s largest dams.  A few cite the cat-train accident last May that claimed the life of bulldozer operator Donald Kiehl as an example of the consequences of a short timeline, which originally had AEA planning to file for its permit from FERC in September of 2015.  According to AEA’s extension request, their overall timeline has now been pushed to the end of 2016.

Another common theme in the response letters is concern over the linked issues of continued state funding for the project and the current lack of access to study areas near the proposed dam site.  Much of the land in that area is owned by Alaska Native Corporations, many of whom have not allowed AEA contractors to use the land in their studies.  Governor Parnell cited this lack of access as his reason for cutting the project’s funding to $10 million in his proposed budget.  Without access and without more funding, the project cannot move forward.  Some, including the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife are asking that FERC delay the study review process until it is clear whether or not those issues will be resolved.

In its request, AEA asked that a decision be made by Friday, January 24th.  As of the end of the east-coast business day, no response was publicly available.

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