The owner of a 5,800-acre wilderness in the North Carolina foothills says an electric cooperative should assess the environmental impact of a proposed high-voltage power line through the tract.
Recent sparring between lawyers for Box Creek Wilderness owner Tim Sweeney, a Cary video game developer, and Rutherford Electric Membership Corp. may be a prelude to a fight in court. Rutherford has moved to condemn a 100-foot-wide corridor through the property.
The cooperative insists there is no other feasible route for an 11-mile line connecting two rural substations.
Rutherford says Sweeney rejected one option, along a logging road on the western edge of his property. Alternative corridors Sweeney has proposed are too narrow, would cause environmental damage or even displace families, it says.
The Box Creek forces, in turn, cite public records in suggesting the cooperative has avoided doing publicly available studies of the line’s potential harm to the environment.
The wilderness, in McDowell and Rutherford counties, ranks among the most biologically important of the state’s 2,400 Significant Natural Heritage Areas, and is the largest that is privately owned.
Early last year Rutherford told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which polices damage to streams and wetlands, that it would finance the project through the federal Rural Utilities Service. That would require an environmental study.
The cooperative later said it would not use federal financing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asked by Rutherford to comment on the power line, said a route that skirts the wilderness area would have the least environmental impact.
The service noted concerns of damage to streams and endangered species, and the spread of invasive, nonnative species.
Sweeney’s biologists believe the endangered Indiana bat lives in the wilderness. If so, Rutherford might have to obtain a federal permit excusing it for any inadvertent harm to the bat.
Box Creek’s lawyers say the cooperative, whether it is required to or not, should analyze the environmental impact of its favored route and of alternatives that don’t cross the wilderness.
“Rutherford Electric is a public entity that has received a lot of public funding, and we just feel they ought to do the right thing,” said Steven Levitas, a Raleigh lawyer for Sweeney.
Rutherford maintains that no environmental review is required under the National Environmental Policy Act because the project would not need a permit from the Corps of Engineers.
And it said no Indiana bats have been found within five miles of the wilderness area.
“We have checked the law and regulations carefully, and we are in full compliance with all laws and rules and regulations without doing a National Environmental Policy Act analysis,” said Edward Poe, whose Charlotte firm represents Rutherford.
Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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