FERC permit trumps competitors while permit holders plan dams removal

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich., U.S. 9/12/11 (PennWell) — Backers of a plan to remove three mothballed hydro projects from Michigan’s Boardman River include the holders of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission preliminary permit that prevents competitors from attempting to study redeveloping the projects.

In February 2009, FERC granted a three-year preliminary permit to Grand Traverse County and Traverse City, Mich., to study developing the 2.175-MW Boardman River project (No. 13284), which would involve repowering three developments, Boardman Dam at 1 MW, Brown Bridge Dam at 675 kW, and Sabin Dam at 500 kW.

The FERC order had denied competing applications by Peterson Machinery Sales (No. 13143), to develop all three dams also totaling 2.175 MW, and NM Hydroelectric Power LLC (No. 13129), to develop only Sabin Dam at 500 kW. Because the city and county are municipalities, they received “municipal preference” for the permit under the Federal Power Act.

While a preliminary permit does not allow construction, it reserves the site for the permit holder while it studies the feasibility of the site and prepares an application for a hydropower license. Holding a three-year permit prevents another developer from pursuing the site.

Permit holders voted for dam removal in 2009

According to an Aug. 29 news release by the Boardman River Dams Project, a dam removal coalition, Grand Traverse County and Traverse City voted to proceed with dam removal in April 2009, two months after they had received the FERC permit. The Boardman River Dams Project Internet site, www.theboardman.org, identifies the county and city as members of the group’s dam removal Implementation Team.

The apparent conflict of interest did not go unnoticed at the time of the permit issuance. Norbert Tutlis of Traverse City, who identifies himself as founder of the Boardman Valley Preservation Society, protested the permit issuance at the time, and has written several letters of protest since to FERC and to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has advised the FERC permit holders on what it would take to remove the dams.

“A number of commenters raised concerns that Traverse (city and county) has no intention of pursuing project development and filed a permit application only to prevent other entities from developing the project,” FERC said at the time of permit issuance. “No matter what Traverse’s motives may be, it will be required to file progress reports every six months describing the work it has done during that period. If sufficient progress is not shown, the permit may be canceled.”

FERC records show the permit holders have submitted four six-month progress reports, sometimes only after prodding by FERC. However, each progress report letter is identical to the one before, with only the dates changing. The third progress report, dated Aug. 9, 2010, is titled “Second Six-Month Preliminary Feasibility Permit Progress Report,” the title inadvertently carried over from the actual second report, dated Feb. 16, 2010.

All the progress reports simply declare: “Over the previous six months, Grand Traverse County and City of Traverse City have continued its review of project files, existing environmental data, and engineering options for the project and will continue this process to determine the most efficient use of the resource.”

Commenter to FERC: ‘Stop the charade, remove the permit’

Tutlis of the Boardman Valley Preservation Society, has been outspoken in comments filed with FERC.

“To continue to let them hold the permit in view of the fact they are publicly announcing they are in the process of accepting public funds to remove the very dams they are telling FERC they are studying for feasibility of producing hydro electricity, if you do not stop this your agency is complicit,” Tutlis said in comments received by FERC Jan. 5. “… You must act now. Stop the charade and remove the permit from the city and county and allow an honest operator to surface before these precious resources are destroyed forever.”

The Boardman River Dams Project announced Aug. 29 that private and public sources have granted more than $3.4 million for removal of two of three dams. The grants are directed to partners in the Boardman River Dams Project, which is to remove Brown Bridge and Sabin dams.

Together with planned removal of Boardman Dam, the project is to restore more than three miles of cold water stream, plus 253 acres of wetlands and 57 acres upland habitat.

Grant recipients include:

  • Conservation Resource Alliance: $1 million Sustain Our Great Lakes grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation; $400,000 Fish Passage and Great Lakes Basin Fish Habitat Partnership grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; $590,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Lakes Fish & Wildlife Restoration Act;
  • Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians: $649,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative award from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs;
  • Grand Traverse Conservation District: $25,000 grant from the Oleson Foundation;
  • Grand Traverse County: $250,000 Challenge Grant from the Frey Foundation;
  • The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay: $533,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; $40,000 from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Federal Clean Water Act Section 319 Program.

The Boardman River Dams Project said drawdown of Sabin and Brown Bridge impoundments was scheduled to begin this summer, with “deconstruction” scheduled for 2012.

Unless FERC revokes it, the preliminary permit held by Grand Traverse County and City of Traverse City expires Jan. 31, 2012.

In 2006, Traverse City Light & Power surrendered the FERC license of the 800-kW Brown Bridge project (No. 2978) and the FERC exemptions of the 500-kW Sabin (No. 2980) and 1-MW Boardman (No. 2979) projects. The utility found the projects, built between 1867 and 1921, were no longer economically feasible to operate.

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