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Sunrise Powerlink Project Faces Legal Challenges

Opponents Of Project Say Approval Battle Far From Over

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The route for the proposed Sunrise Powerlink electrical transmission line would cross a national forest and other public lands in southeast San Diego County. While the California Public Utilities Commission has approved it, legal challenges may delay or possibly derail the Sunrise project.

The route for the proposed Sunrise Powerlink electrical transmission line would cross a national forest and other public lands in southeast San Diego County. While the California Public Utilities Commission has approved it, legal challenges may delay or possibly derail the Sunrise project.

Donna Tisdale has lived on the ranch she shares with her husband in Boulevard for more than 30 years.

The community is about 4,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by a national forest, campgrounds and views of mountains and valleys.

As she drove us around the McCain Valley, Tisdale said she's worried the proposed Sunrise Powerlink is going to spoil the view and open the backcountry to more energy projects, including electrical substations and windfarms.

"I was born in Imperial Valley and raised in Imperial Valley and I've just known open views all my life and they just are just so important," Tisdale said. "Scenic vistas are actually a resource that the federal government is required to protect by law."

Tisdale is the secretary of the Protect Our Communities Foundation. She wants to keep the Sunrise Powerlink out of the backcountry.

"Once you allow certain developments that don't really fit in the community that are non-rural, that are urban or suburban in nature, that's the beginning of the end," Tisdale said. "And people move here for the quality of life, to be close to nature, to be left alone and that's what we're trying to protect."

The route for the project, as approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, would cross through parts of the Cleveland National Forest and Bureau of Land Management property.

Michael Shames is the executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network in San Diego. He's filed two lawsuits challenging the project. One was filed jointly with the Center For Biological Diversity in the California Supreme Court.

"To review whether the California Public Utilities Commission had effectively applied the environmental protection laws of the State of California," Shames said. "And only the Supreme Court can review a challenge to an agency that implemented these rules."

Shames says UCAN has also filed a petition with the Court of Appeals in San Diego.

"We're asking that court to review whether the Public Utilities Commission followed the state law that requires them to consider alternatives, economically-feasible alternatives, to transmission lines," Shames says.

Shames and other opponents claim alternatives, like rooftop solar, could provide the same electric resource without the environmental degradation they fear from the Sunrise Powerlink.

The U.S. Forest Service has yet to decide whether the Sunrise Powerlink will be permitted in the Cleveland National Forest. Anabele Cornejo with the Cleveland National Forest says the federal agency is still reviewing the BLM's Environmental Impact Study and documents provided by San Diego Gas and Electric.

She said the process will take at least three months.

David Hogan, who is with the Protect Our Communities Foundation, said the Sunrise Powerlink is not a done deal.

"There's still a big fight over the project," Hogan said. "There are still incredibly large permitting hurdles that SDG&E has to get through to get the project approved. For example, the Cleveland National Forest hasn't yet given permission for the project to cross 20 miles of the Cleveland National Forest."

Hogan said the Protect Our Communities Foundation has filed an appeal challenging the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the project.

He said, if necessary, the group is prepared to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the BLM's decision.

Jennifer Briscoe, who is with SDG&E said the utility doesn't expect the legal challenges to change the construction timeline.

"We're confident that the Sunrise Powerlink project with prevail," Briscoe said. "We set a date of construction starting mid-June 2010. And we're well on target to meet that goal."

As we stop on an overlook off a dirt road in the McCain Valley, Donna Tisdale marvels at the wilderness around her.

"You can hear how quiet it is," Tisdale said. "You can come out here and commune with nature and restore your soul. I do it as often as I can. But I won't come out here anymore once it's destroyed."

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