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Find the right balance

We are confronted with issues this week that remind of us of the balance that must be struck between immediate needs and the long-term potential effects of actions taken to meet those needs. We are also reminded that elected and appointed officials must act responsibly in the wake of conflicting interests, knowing that the public good can be interpreted in many ways in a single situation.

The first situation is the oil spill that resulted from an offshore drilling platform explosion off the coast of Louisiana. The potential for devastation, both environmental and economic, is staggering. The damage is a price paid for our thirst for oil. It occurred, in the end, because this country has not yet found ways to significantly dampen its need for oil and to remove oil dependency from the heart of the economy. Officials deemed need sufficient to justify taking what they believed was a small risk. The bet failed.

Here at home we have two items in view that also illustrate how decisions concerning the environment are made in light of need – decisions that could have some degree of negative environmental impact. The question: How much does that potential drive the decisions?

The first decision has been made and will stand unless further legal action ensues. U.S. Senior Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled Monday against a lawsuit brought by the San Juan Citizens Alliance and other groups to prevent expanded drilling in the HD Mountains — an area including land located in the westernmost part of Archuleta County. Matsch’s ruling upholds a Forest Service decision in 2007 to allow expanded drilling in the area and notes that drilling meets demands and supports amenities “provided by urbanization.” While there have not been a great number of wells approved in the HDs since 2007, Matsch wrote that agencies need to keep the balance between needs and environmental protection in mind and attempt to minimize harm to either.

Such should be also the case with the proposed expansion of LPEA’s Ponderosa substation west of town, adjacent to U.S. 160. To date, the project has flown under the radar but, with a date with the Archuleta County Planning Commission near, details become more obvious and, to some, more alarming. LPEA officials will approach the commission asking that the panel recommend approval of a Conditional Use Permit allowing for the expansion that will double the substation’s capacity.

LPEA will argue meeting the demand for electricity and enhancing redundancy with other substations in cases of outages require the expansion. Further, the company would argue that moving the substation to another site would be far too costly.

Those worried about the project see the expansion as an environmental hazard — in this case, an aesthetic hazard. And, yes, such things exist, and can do damage to an overall environment.

The proposed, expanded substation sits immediately adjacent to U.S. 160, across from Hell’s Hip Pocket, on the western approach to the Pagosa Lakes area and the town of Pagosa Springs. The western approach to the area is already cluttered with ugliness, violations yet to be remedied by the county. Without significant mitigation, the proposed substation would only add to that mess — a mess that offends many residents and, more importantly, visitors and those wishing to relocate and bring their businesses to a beautiful mountain community.

Objections to the plan are growing and will no doubt, be expressed at the commission meeting.

Given the expansion must occur, the Conditional Use Permit should be approved only with major mitigation required of the builder. Protect the public’s need for reliable and sufficient electrical power, but also protect the public’s right to have a potential eyesore shielded in the most effective fashion.

And, always, pray nothing blows up and nothing leaks.

Karl Isberg