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Public overwhelmingly voices opposition to nuclear lab transmission line project

Petroglyphs on the Caja del Rio plateau.
Courtesy of Andrew Black
Petroglyphs on the Caja del Rio plateau.

A controversial power line project that would dissect the Caja Del Rio plateau in northern New Mexico had a second, in-person public meeting Thursday at the Santa Fe Community College to hear public opinion on a draft environmental assessment.

The public showed up in droves to ask the federal government to take the extra time to consult with tribes and further evaluate the project's impacts on the land.

The room was packed with stakeholders of every kind – from Pueblo leadership and environmental activists to everyday New Mexicans and local politicians. At its entrance, several posters with elaborate graphics about the project lined the wall.

“We are opposed… And we will always be opposed,” Tesuque Pueblo Governor Milton Herrera said.

People came to discuss Los Alamos National Laboratory’s electrical power capacity upgrade project (EPCU), which has been going through a long and arduous review process mandated by federal law.

LANL wants to establish a new 115kV transmission line project that would cut across national forest land on the Caja from East to West in the name of “national security interests.”

To accomplish this, the recently revised Santa Fe National Forest Management Plan would also need to be amended.

Not one person spoke in favor of the line at the three-hour meeting, but many had concerns that the lab isn’t following the National Environmental Policy Act process, or NEPA.

Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of, New Mexico Wild said the group will be submitting a whopping 54 pages of public comment, outlining the legal and technical issues with the line.

“What you are proposing is nothing short of desecration of the sacrosanct,” VeneKlasen added.

The NEPA process happens in several stages.

Right now, the government is collecting public comment on a draft environmental assessment meant to determine whether or not the electrical project has the potential to cause significant environmental effects.

Specifically, VeneKlasen said the draft is illegal because it’s longer than 75 pages and tribal input has been poor or missing altogether.

This could end in many different ways.

The lab may reach the conclusion that the power line would have no significant impact on the Caja. That would give the green light for construction to start. Or a no action alternative would kill the project.

Though, many argue that, if the power line proposal must go forward, the lab needs to provide a full-blown environmental impact statement to evaluate the potential ramifications to the land, water, wildlife, and cultural resources.

LANL has consistently pushed back on this, and stated that the project will have “little to no” impact on the cultural resources, endangered wildlife, or the Caja itself.

Jonathan Vander Wiel is the federal project director for the electrical power capacity upgrade. He said this project is in the best interest of not just New Mexicans, but the nation as a whole.

“We all benefit from national security,” Vander Wiel said. “The ability to go to the grocery store, and have fruits and vegetables on your table every night is something that comes from national security and global supply chains.”

Vander Wiel said alternatives like reconductoring, or replacing the cables on two other pre-existing transmission lines in the area with bigger cables to increase power capacity, wasn’t an option.

“We would need to increase the number of power poles that are in place we need to rehabilitate and essentially would need to build new poles in order to do the reconducting operation,” Vander Wiel said.

That argument got pushback.

“I really don’t buy the fact that it’s too expensive or not doable, Garrett VeneKlasen said. “You guys [LANL] are the best and brightest minds in the world. So, please don’t tell me we can’t do it.”

The environmental assessment is, by law, required to “rigorously explore reasonable alternatives and objectively evaluate them.”

Stan Jones is a nearby resident who recreates in the Caja every single day. He remained unconvinced and visibly shook with anger.

“You didn’t sell me,” Jones said. “This is not a project that should go forward. Stop it. Stop it now.”

But, still missing is a report on the impact to the area’s historical and cultural resources.

Tribes were promised this report would come after an informal briefing last December, just as Pueblo leadership was changing hands. No deadline was given.

When questioned about the report, the lab’s NEPA expert Kristen Dors told KUNM that the document should come sometime around the finalization of the draft environmental assessment in April – possibly as the project gets closer to reality.

Public comment for the proposal is still ongoing, and will close on February 20, 2024.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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