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County asks for impact hearings

by Mark Vasto
Landmark reporter

In their most significant move since agreeing to terms with Great Plains Power (GPP) in December 2002, the Platte County Commission has called on the US Army Corps of Engineers to require a full environmental impact statement (EIS) and to host public hearings in regard to the proposed Weston Bend power plant project.

In a letter addressed to Doug Berka, special projects manager for the Army Corps, the commission acknowledged public pressure regarding the proposal and outlined their request, declaring it to be in the "citizens' best interest.”

"During the past few weeks, we have heard from many citizens of Platte County concerning the GPP proposal," the letter states. "Some favor the proposal, others oppose it, but all have questions.”

The letter stated that although the commission was not "exactly sure" what an EIS entailed, it signaled that permitting agencies could do more to alleviate concerns regarding the project.

"Agencies responsible for permitting decisions should conduct public hearings and educate the public regarding the process," the letter said, adding, "We encourage your agency (the Army Corps) to do so.”

Susan Brown, spokesperson for the Concerned Citizens of Platte County, was thankful for the commission's announcement.

"This is great news and what Concerned Citizens has been requesting for many months," said Brown. "An EIS is a very comprehensive study on the impacts of a proposed action. The reason it is necessary for us to ask for one is that the federal government requires an EIS only if the permit is for a major federal action. When a private company is involved, the courts have ruled both ways - sometimes requiring an EIS and other times not.”

When reached by The Landmark, Berka cautioned against drawing any conclusions regarding the project because of the letter.

"Even if we do the EIS, that doesn't mean the project couldn't go forward," Berka explained, adding that the Corps could only take the letter under advisement. Berka said that the Army Corps was only involved in the water permits for the project and that they were in the process of evaluating GPP's proposal.

"We, the Corps of Engineers, because of the wetland fills proposed for the project and the water wells under the river…the Weston Bend project will require a permit from us," Berka said, explaining that the Army Corps historically handled permits for navigable rivers since 1899.

Berka said that his agency would look at GPP's data and conclude whether or not the power plant project would have a "significant environmental impact." If it did, then the Corps would ask GPP to submit a full EIS.

When asked what a "significant impact" would entail, Berka said it would be a project that exceeded state and federal regulations for emission levels. He said that it was too early to tell if the Weston Bend project would exceed such limits and even if it was, the EIS would not be a "showstopper.”

"It wouldn't stop the project," Berka said. "It would be used to see how we address those issues.”

The letter comes from the commission just one week after the City of Weston called on them to "lead the way" in seeing that just such an action was taken. Although the commission is not able to demand that the EIS take place under the terms of their contract, it would seem that by taking this action they have done as much as they can on their end to address health and environmental concerns for the project.

"From the outset, the commission realized that the county did not have a role in environmental permitting for such a plant," Commissioner Steve Wegner said. "Nor do we have the staff with the technical training to provide the commission with an expert assessment.”

Commissioner Michael Short agreed, saying that "although the commission disagrees with many statements made by some who oppose the power plant's construction, we believe that thorough environmental assessments and increased public awareness about the permitting process are logical and in our citizens best interest.”


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