TOWNSHEND -- After years of planning and development work, two proposed hydroelectric plants still aren't ready for construction.
Blue Heron Hydro LLC has requested a third extension from the Vermont Public Service Board to complete projects on the West River at Townshend Dam and Ball Mountain Dam in Jamaica.
The request comes as a previous extension is scheduled to expire Oct. 31. Blue Heron is citing continuing delays in obtaining permits from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns both dams.
"The (Army Corps) approval process, including its timing, is outside of the board's and Blue Heron's control," a representative of the developer wrote in papers filed with the state.
Blue Heron is the corporate name under which New Jersey-based Eagle Creek Renewable Energy is pursuing development of hydroelectric stations at Townshend and Ball Mountain. Prior to Eagle Creek's acquisition of the projects in summer 2012, each already had been granted 50-year licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Also, there are long-term power-purchase agreements in place through the state's Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development program.
The hydro plants are modestly sized, with a combined predicted power output of 3.1 megawatts. But it has proven difficult for Blue Heron to move the projects forward.
The initial power-purchase agreements were finalized on Dec. 30, 2009, with a three-year commissioning deadline. In May 2012, the Public Service Board granted a one-year extension, moving that deadline to Dec. 31, 2013.
In April of 2013, after a request from Blue Heron, the board granted another extension to Oct. 31 of this year.
In new documents filed with the state, the developer says it "has been working with diligence and in good faith to achieve the commissioning deadlines." But Blue Heron also notes that the Army Corps "must approve the design, construction and operational plans for the projects.
And that has not yet happened, which has led Blue Heron to ask for yet another commissioning-date extension to Oct. 31, 2015.
Army Corps approval "continues to take longer than anticipated as a result of conditions and events outside of the control of Blue Heron," wrote Elijah D. Emerson, a Montpelier-based attorney representing the company.
Asked about the status of the project, Tim Dugan of the Army Corps' New England District said the agency "has received engineering and technical information submitted by the project proponent for these proposed projects, and that information is under review by the Corps."
The hydro stations need Secretary of the Army approval, a requirement for any project that modifies an Army Corps structure, Dugan said.
Also required is a Clean Water Act permit from the Army Corps. That would follow Secretary of the Army approval, Dugan said.
He did not cite any hangups in the process. As for a schedule, "I can't speculate on when the engineering and technical reviews will be completed," Dugan wrote in an e-mail to the Reformer.
In his letter to the Public Service Board, though, Emerson cites a variety of possible factors in the delay.
"As one of the primary agencies responsible for reacting to major storms and flooding events, USACE has had a major role in responding to the major storms that have affected the United States over the past few years. As one of the more heavily affected districts, the North Atlantic Division was impacted by both Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy," Emerson wrote.
"In addition to the large impact to the regional USACE district as a whole, the dams at which the projects will be located are becoming the focus of even greater attention because of their role in protecting life and property from floods," the Blue Heron attorney wrote, adding that "the USACE has been operating under reduced resources and manpower as a result of the federal budget sequestration of 2013 and resulting budget cuts."
Construction-scheduling constraints also play a role.
"Due to certain characteristics of the dams and how they are operated by the USACE, Blue Heron has a limited window in which to accomplish certain necessary evaluation and construction activities. This window closes after June 15th," Emerson wrote. "Thus, a delayed USACE approval has an greater impact on the ability to construct the projects than other projects with a larger construction window."
In response to a request for comment, Eagle Creek Chief Executive Officer Bud Cherry said the company's filing with the state "adequately describes the current status of the two facilities."
In an e-mail to the Reformer, Cherry added that "Eagle Creek remains committed to adding clean, reliable hydroelectric generation to Vermont."
The Public Service Board has not acted on Blue Heron's extension request, which was filed July 3. The state Department of Public Service, a separate entity, has been invited to submit comment on the matter.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.