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Feds agree to faster licensing for Aspen hydroelectric plant

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – One day after opponents of Aspen’s proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric project claimed a significant victory with a determination that enough petition signatures were valid to force the Aspen City Council to take another look at its recent zoning decision for the plant, the city announced a coup of its own.

On Wednesday, the city said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Friday approved its request to follow a “traditional licensing process,” known as a TLP. Critics of the project had lobbied FERC to deny the TLP, saying that the “integrated licensing process,” a more complex route known as an ILP, would be more appropriate given the controversies and complexities they say surrounds the project.

“As stated in the FERC order, the city of Aspen believes the use of the TLP will allow a license application to be completed expeditiously and FERC concludes ‘that the TLP is adequate for the proposed Castle Creek Project,'” the city’s prepared announcement states.

“FERC’s order acknowledged that the city’s proposal already contains extensive research and background information, including the results of four recent studies on existing fish populations and the potential effect of the project on stream habitat and amphibians,” the statement reads. “Based on this available information, the order concluded that FERC ‘does not anticipate a significant need for new studies,’ and that ‘we don’t consider the licensing issues surrounding the proposed Castle Creek Project to be complex.'”

David Hornbacher, city director of utilities and environmental Initiatives, was in a meeting late Wednesday afternoon and could not be reached for a live comment.

In the statement, though, he stated that city officials “are pleased that FERC has agreed the TLP is an appropriate process. … We look forward to the continued engagement of key stakeholders in an effort to assure the protection of fisheries and stream habitat along Castle Creek. This is an important process and the city is committed to it.”

Asked to explain the significance of gaining approval to go the TLP route, assistant city manager R. Barry Crook said his understanding is that “it’s a slightly more streamlined process than the ILP. You’re not necessarily building a record from scratch. You can build on stuff that you’ve already produced.”

Basically, Crook said, FERC allows a TLP if a project is “not as complex or complicated” as a project for which an ILP would be deemed necessary.

Still, under the TLP, the city said there are specific steps for public involvement that will need to be carried out, including:

• An initial public meeting and site visit.

• Study development with participant review.

• A draft application preparation and participant review.

• A meeting to resolve disputes on the draft application.

Like many other critics of the city’s plan for a hydroelectric plant that would take water from Castle and Maroon creeks, Matt Rice, Colorado director for the nonprofit organization American Rivers, wrote a letter to FERC arguing that the ILP process was the correct route.

“The commission should reject Aspen’s request,” he wrote in a letter dated Jan. 3. “American Rivers has been active in the local debate over this project and has extremely serious concerns with the manner in which Aspen has pursued regulatory approval for this project so far. At every turn, Aspen has attempted to take procedural shortcuts that would limit its exposure to public scrutiny and meaningful environmental review.

“In general, the TLP features fewer opportunities for the public to participate in the development of a license application. Aspen and its citizens would both benefit from the structured application development process that the integrated licensing process was designed to provide.”

Rice added that the city only proposes to hold one additional public meeting on the issue during the licensing process.

“While this level of public collaboration may indeed be sufficient for small, uncontroversial licensing proceedings, it cannot suffice for a project with this level of controversy and local stakeholder interest,” he wrote. “The city has consistently described the Castle Creek project as something that it is not. It has marginalized community concerns. It has even misrepresented several critical project works in order to begin construction of the project prior to the commission’s approval.”

For the past couple of years, the hydroelectric initiative has come under intense scrutiny, largely from landowners who live within the watershed area of Castle and Maroon creeks but also from outside parties such as American Rivers.

On Tuesday, Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch certified a petition organized by Aspenites Ward Hauenstein and Maurice Emmer that aims to overturn a recent City Council decision to rezone land off Power Plant Road south of Aspen for the hydroelectric facility. The petition effort had backing from the local group Saving Our Streams, which includes landowners who have filed a legal challenge to the city’s water rights for hydroelectricity at Castle Creek.

Needing at least 594 valid signatures from Aspen voters – the figure represents 10 percent of the city’s electorate – anti-project forces had gathered 953 signatures when they turned them in to Koch’s office on Jan. 17. Koch’s letter to Emmer, a “statement of sufficiency,” does not say how many of the signatures were valid but notes that the minimum requirement was met.

Anyone who wishes to challenge the validity of the petition drive has until Feb. 27 to file a protest with her office. Barring the success of a potential protest, the council will take up the matter during its regular meeting on March 12.

Council members will have the option of rescinding the ordinance outright – they would need four votes of the five-member entity – or calling a special election this spring to let the city’s voters decide whether to rezone the land for the plant.

Rescinding the zoning ordinance would not prevent the city from moving forward with its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a license to operate a small water plant. When the council made the zoning change on Dec. 12, the action was deemed as something that would be a helpful addition to its request to the commission but not immediately crucial.

Opponents want the zoning matter to be decided by a local referendum – and sooner rather than later. They believe the public should be allowed to decide the worthiness of the project, and they discount a 2007 referendum in which more than 70 percent of those who voted supported a $5.5 million bond issue to finance the plant’s construction, saying the ballot question was vague and voters didn’t understand what they were approving.

To date, the city has spent more than $7 million on the project but contends that much of the construction so far, such as an emergency drain line from Thomas Reservoir to Castle Creek, would have been necessary regardless of whether the city obtains a FERC license for a hydroelectric plant. The city’s total estimate for the project is $10.5 million.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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