The federal permitting process for the proposed Rail Tie Wind Project took another step forward this week with the conclusion of two public hearings that are part of the Western Area Power Administration’s National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
Also as part of that analysis, a public comment period is open through May 17.
Energy company ConnectGen, which is proposing the Rail Tie Wind Project, is requesting to connect with a Western Area Power Administration transmission line that runs through the southern portion of the project area about 20 miles south of Laramie.
The administration, also called WAPA, operates within the U.S. Department of Energy, and the interconnection request plus the project itself are considered a “major federal action,” thus they require evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Mark Wieringa, the NEPA document manager for the administration, said that if it decides to deny the interconnection request, the project could theoretically move forward but would have to connect to a different transmission line. However, one attraction of the project site is the existing transmission line.
“The draft EIS assumes that in that case the project would not be built,” he said.
The administration released a draft environmental impact statement in early April and is in the midst of a 45-day review of that document, which is also available online at www.wapa.gov/transmission/EnvironmentalReviewNEPA/Pages/rail-tie-wind-project.aspx.
“All comments will be considered as the draft EIS is revised,” Wieringa said.
The 500-megawatt Rail Tie Wind Project proposes 120 wind turbines on a 26,000-acre project area that includes public and private land on both sides of U.S. Highway 287 near Tie Siding. The project proposes using V150-4.2 turbines manufactured by Vestas Wind Systems, which are 590.5 feet tall at the tip of the blade.
The project would also include access roads, collection lines, a management facility, two substations, an interconnection switchyard and three meteorological towers.
Shell Wind Energy considered a project in the same area a decade ago, but that project was suspended when the company exited the energy sector, Wieringa said.
In preparing the environmental impact statement, WAPA contracted with SWCA Environmental Consultants. SWCA project manager David Fetter said the analysis looked at 15 categories of potential impacts, such as cultural resources, health and safety, vegetation, wildland fire and wildlife species.
The analysis found that the project would significantly impact aesthetics and visual resources, he said, but not have significant impacts for any other resource.
The visual analysis considered viewsheds within 30 miles of the project area, including visual simulations from a group of “key observation points,” such as residential areas, tourist sites, recreation sites and transportation corridors.
The analysis found that the project would create a moderate to strong degree of visual change at 54-76 percent of the key observation points, depending on the finalized turbine height. Degrees of visual change in the analysis consider distance from the project and intervening topography.
“The analysis concludes that impacts to the visual resources would be significant,” Fetter said. “Specifically, the landscape would appear substantially altered. The turbines would dominate the visual setting in many cases.”
Impacts from the project on habitat and plant and animal populations would not be significant, according to the analysis.
“Those impacts would be temporary, generally ending with construction,” he said.
Following the current 45-day comment period, WAPA is scheduled to publish a final environmental impact statement, which will go through a 30-day review period before a record of decision is issued.
Following construction, WAPA would own and operate the switchyard, while ConnectGen would own and operate the rest of the project.
Portions of the two meetings were reserved for public comment and questions. Paul Montoya, who lives near the project area, asked meeting panelists if WAPA had ever denied an interconnection request, or if a request had ever been denied due to visual impacts. Panel members included representatives from WAPA, SWCA and ConnectGen.
According to the panelists, who communicated with audience members through a moderator during the virtual meetings, WAPA has never denied an interconnection request at this stage of the permitting process, nor has it ever denied a request based on a project’s visual impact.
The federal permitting process has been underway for more than a year, starting with the publication of a notice of intent and a scoping period.
Connie Wilbert, who directs the Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club, said her organization supports the Rail Tie project in its current location because the area is already significantly developed with highways, railroads and rural subdivisions.
“Compared to developing a similar project in a more remote, rural area, our conclusion was that the impacts at this location would be less,” she said. “That’s part of our thinking.”
Others living near the project area weighed in, asking that WAPA not approve the interconnection request because visual impacts, impacts to wildlife and big game herds, lack of fire protection and danger from ice throw.
Susan Davis said she worried about the fire danger caused by turbines attracting lighting, especially in an area near national forest lands.
“This is not the right site, in my opinion, for an industrial wind facility,” she said. “I truly am terrified of the possibility of fire in the area.”
Donna Lange said the project would not be a good neighbor to those already in the area.
“It obliterates the character of the Ames Monument, a national treasure,” she said.
The Rail Tie Project must also receive approval from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Albany County Board of Commissioners. Those permitting processes are also underway.
ConnectGen has said it plans to complete permitting this year and begin the two-year construction process next spring.
Comments can be submitted to WAPA by email at RailTieWind@wapa.gov. They can be sent by mail to: Mark Wieringa, Western Area Power Administration, Headquarters Office A9402, P.O. Box 281213, Lakewood, CO 80228-8213.