FPL power line debate heats up

A draft of a Miami-Dade report recommends that the state deny proposed high-voltage corridors through Everglades National Park and down heavily populated section of U.S. 1

Two years ago, Florida Power & Light quietly secured congressional approval for a land swap that would allow it to run a trio of high voltage power lines with towers 150 feet tall along the northeastern edge of Everglades National Park.

Despite that influential stamp of approval, the utility’s plans now appear to be on increasingly shaky ground.

In a draft report, Miami-Dade County recommends rejecting sections of the proposed pathway within the park, flatly stating that there are “less impacting alternative alignments’’ that could “entirely avoid’’ the Everglades and adjacent sensitive wetlands.

The report also recommends denial of a second corridor FPL wants along a swath of U.S. 1, a route that has riled residents from Cutler Bay to Coconut Grove — unless the utility would agree to bury the line at its own expense. The towering lines, the report said, would conflict with existing land-use codes, impede development and amount to a visual blight.

The county report, which had been due to state environmental regulators on Friday but was held to resolve legal questions, echoes concerns expressed by environmentalists, park scientists and South Miami-Dade communities since the utility two years ago filed for state permits to build two new major transmission corridors as part of its proposed expansion of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in South Miami-Dade.

“These are gigantic power lines,’’ said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “There are Everglades restoration impacts, wetlands impacts, impacts on birds. There are also visual impacts. The first thing people are going to see are these 150-foot tall towers.’’

Mayco Villafaña, a spokesman for FPL, said the utility had not yet reviewed Miami-Dade’s report, which could still change, but noted it wasn’t the only or final word in the state’s long, complicated process of approving major power line corridors.

On Thursday, another key agency, the South Florida Water Management District, endorsed the utility’s proposals — though with a list of conditions intended to address concerns including interference with radio-controlled flood gates, damage to flood control levees and disruption of colonies of endangered wood storks that feed and breed in nearby colonies.

Jack Osterholt, Miami-Dade’s deputy mayor, said the county has held numerous talks with FPL, mostly over concerns about the eastern route through densely developed suburbs and cities.

FPL hasn’t backed off either route, but in a series of public and private meetings over the last few months with county agencies, water managers and other groups, the utility has signaled it is open to alternatives that could push the northeast Everglades segment east of Krome Avenue — even though the deadline for submitting a new proposal has passed.

“Even at this late date, after the deadline has passed, we are willing to work with a credible entity if they identify a corridor that has merit,” Villafaña said.

Two alternatives have been accepted for consideration by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — one proposed by Coral Gables and Pinecrest that would push a proposed 230 kilovolt line off U.S. 1 to an existing, older corridor that runs north through an unincorporated area east of Florida’s Turnpike to a substation near Sweetwater, then east to Miami.

Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, who praised the county’s draft report, said FPL had been anything but cooperative and “incredibly arrogant’’ in discussions.

“They’ve fought us tooth and nail,’’ she said. “The attitude is the utility knows all and the utility knows best.’’

A second one came from the Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association, a group of rock-mining companies in the county’s northwest. They proposed a relatively small change that would take two miles of transmission lines out of a state water conservation area and move them east into a wetlands area the industry is supposed to restore as part of Everglades restoration.

Tom MacVicar, an engineering consultant for the mining industry, said FPL had been open to the route and other ideas that could potentially steer the western corridor — which would be more than 1,000 feet wide to accommodate three sets of side-by-side 500 kilovolt towers — further from Everglades National Park.

“Inside the park is nobody’s preferred option, including FPL’’ said MacVicar.

FPL applied for new corridors in 2009, calling them crucial to improving reliability, handling projected population growth and the additional juice generated by two proposed additional nuclear reactors at Turkey Point. The lines, including a new substation, are projected to cost some $710 million in an expansion that could run an estimated $12 billion to $18 billion.

Villafaña said underground high voltage lines would add $12 million to $16 million per mile, costs that customers in the area would wind up paying.

FPL’s “preferred” western corridor depends on swapping a 7.4-mile long strip of land it acquired more than 40 years ago in the Eastern Everglades that has since been absorbed into Everglades National Park. In exchange for the strip, only as wide as a football field, the park service would grant FPL a narrow easement three miles east along the park’s eastern boundary.

With FPL’s existing strip sitting smack in the way of a critical part of the Everglades restoration effort — bridging Tamiami Trail to restore water flow down the Northwest Shark River Slough — FPL, water managers and the U.S. Interior Department proposed the land swap as one possible solution.

The deal, supported by both Florida senators at the time — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez — was added to a massive spending bill Congress approved in 2009. But it only authorized a potential swap, leaving the final decision to the interior secretary.

The backlash against the swap idea has been strong. An initial study by the park found either route could have significant negative impacts on wading bird nests nearby as well as projects to restore water flows in the parched Eastern Everglades. The park has received more than 10,000 comments from the public on the proposal, almost all of them against the swap. The first draft of a full-blown environmental impact study is expected in September 2012 and a final federal decision by August 2013.

The federal review, separate from the state power-line approval process, poses additional potential problems for FPL.

Under the current schedule, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is expected to finish its analysis and recommendations by March 2012. A month-long hearing before an administrative judge is scheduled to begin in September 2012. From there, any final decision on the corridors will ultimately be made by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. With Miami-Dade seeking an extension on its deadline for comment, the schedule, already delayed 10 times, will likely be pushed back again.

That sets up the possibility that FPL could win state approval for an Everglades border route that it would be unable to use if federal agencies reject the swap.

For now, Villafaña said the utility is going to let the state process play out. FPL does not intend to draw up any new alternatives of its own, she said.

Dawn Shirreffs, Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group that advocates for parks, is skeptical of reviews by state agencies, which she said were under heavy pressure from FPL.

The water district, she said, had softened its power-line review by removing 16 conditions calling for tougher environmental scrutiny contained in a June version of the report. Water managers said they removed redundant language but did not reduce protections.

Shirreffs said the state’s complicated and expensive power-line process frustrated groups, cities and agencies that might otherwise propose alternate routes. The proposal from Pinecrest and Coral Gables, for instance, runs nearly 500 pages.

“It’s not as easy as drawing lines on a map,’’ she said. “You have to hire a transmission line siting expert to meet the requirements. It becomes really burdensome.’’

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