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A small plant delays a big project

Staff Writer

A Monday update about the December suspension of EAGLE-Net Alliance’s (ENA) project to connect public institutions across the state with broadband revealed that part of the reason for the on-going suspension is in Archuleta County.

ENA’s project aims to connect a number of school, library, government and health facilities throughout the state via a broadband network, including Archuleta School District 50 Jt. locally.

To meet that goal, ENA received a $100.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant office.

But, in December, that grant was suspended over concerns that ENA did not meet requirements included in the grant.

A Dec. 6 letter from Arlene Simpson Porter, NOAA grants management division director, to Perry Movick, Chief Operations Officer for ENA, suggests a number of concerns surfaced by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The letter, called for ENA to cease work on the project.

“On August 9, 2012, NOAA placed ENA’s award under a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) to address NTIA’s concerns regarding certain programmatic and financial issues surrounding ENA’s award. On September 14, 2012, NOAA and NTIA received ENA’s CAP response. While NOAA and NTIA continue to review documentation related to ENA’s September 14 CAP response, statements in the document raised additional concerns related to ENA’s failure to consult with NTIA in advance on its new network design,” the letter states.

“Because ENA did not consult with or receive approval from NTIA for its partially implemented new network design, ENA is in violation of the terms and conditions of its Environmental Special Award Condition (EA SAC) and is therefore in material noncompliance with the terms and conditions of its award. Although ENA has subsequently submitted supplemental Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) documentation relating to recently implemented or proposed project modifications, NTIA has identified deficiencies in this documentation that warrant further project review to determine what actions are necessary to mitigate any risks relating to EHP compliance.”

The letter then listed four specific areas of concern:

• “Adequacy of an Environmental Assessment (EA) that meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act upon which NTIA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).

• “Completion of consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

• “Completion of consultations with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and appropriate federally recognized Native American tribes under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

• “Demonstration that the project properly secured all permits required from other Federal Agencies, including but not limited to the USDA-Forest Service (USDA-FS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC).”

The letter did not state further details about the cause of the suspension and, at the time of the suspension, ENA was not forthcoming about what Colorado location prompted the suspension.

At the time, ENA spokesman Cody Wertz said the suspension occurred when the company was working through a, “standard route modification,” and said the NTIA did ask for additional information relating to the EA, which the company was working to provide.

Local government representatives initially heard of the suspension at a meeting of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCOG) at which Todd Starr, Archuleta County attorney and interim county administrator, said an ENA representative described the letter as a routine check to ensure proper permitting, and, in response to questions asked at the meeting, said the letter had nothing to do with environmental concerns.

Wertz, however, indicated that the representative may have misspoke at the meeting or was misheard, but added he was not at the meeting to know what was said.

But, in a February update from the company, it was explained that the suspension refers in part to, “certain routes in EAGLE-Net’s network and to two endangered species … that were not addressed in the original environmental assessment.”

Those species, the update revealed, were the Pagosa Skyrocket, endemic to Archuleta County, and the Clay-loving Wild Buckwheat, which grows in Montrose and Delta counties.

“As the network was engineered and began to be constructed, certain route changes were made that resulted in cost savings and a more robust network infrastructure comprised of more fiber and less microwave, but these changes were initially not put through the proper NTIA change approval process,” the update stated. “These EA concerns about the endangered plant species were raised when EAGLE-Net submitted route changes for approval last year. The NTIA determined that the suspension should be issued until route changes complete the approval process, and the impact of constructing buried fiber optic cable on these species can be assessed. As of this date, EAGLE-Net has complied with the NTIA’s route change and EA processes and is awaiting federal government feedback. The goal is to get the suspension lifted as quickly as possible.”

“It wasn’t that we weren’t being forthright,” said Gretchen Dirks, VP of public relations and communications, said in a Wednesday interview. “A lot was being discovered.”

Dirks indicated that the plants were not discovered during the initial environmental assessment for the project completed in August 2011, and that it was, “coincidental” that they were discovered during the recent compliance process.

“The plants didn’t cause the suspension. What caused the suspension was the … network design,” Dirks said.

Dirks did not know if any of the non-compliant route changes were located in Archuleta County.

“We’ll be getting back to design, permitting and construction as quickly as we possibly can,” Dirks said, adding that a plan is in place to better and more quickly deal with route changes in the future.

When the suspension was issued, Wertz indicated that the suspension was in line with an end to the construction season, meaning the project is still on track to be finished by its Aug. 31 deadline.

How it will affect local broadband efforts is yet to be determined, however.

A local broadband project through the SWCOG, made up of 12 of 15 local governmental entities, was awarded a $3 million grant from the Department of Local Affairs to increase broadband capabilities for the governments.

Locally, Archuleta County and the Town of Pagosa Springs entered into an agreement with USA Communications to lay fiber in Pagosa Springs to governmental facilities, with the town and county then owning 12 strands of fiber along the route.

With that internal network through USA Communications, local entities anticipated using ENA’s fiber to connect from Pagosa to Durango, but when the suspension was issued, Town of Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem indicated that local government had options.

Mitchem said that, with technological upgrades in the last couple years, microwave technology, through SkyWerx, is more affordable.

“In my view, the EAGLE-Net was the backup,” he said. “Getting out of town, we were looking strongly at using SkyWerx.”

Mitchem said SkyWerx is working to replace the microwave tower located on Reservoir Hill, which could provide the town and county the bandwidth needed for the local broadband network to reach Durango. The replacement was anticipated to happen in 2012, but SkyWerx was shipped the wrong tower, with the needed tower on back order, Mitchem explained.

But that doesn’t mean ENA’s suspension is of no concern.

“We want that redundancy of service,” Mitchem said of the microwave and fiber.

randi@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on February 7, 2013.