Regardless of what LCRA thinks, before they can build their 345 kv transmission line through Mason County, they are going to have to coordinate with the Mason Sub-Regional Planning Commission either through state and/or federal statute and, more importantly, they are going to have to comply with federal environmental laws.
On March 19, LCRA sent a letter to Judge Bearden attempting to divert the county’s efforts to stop the transmission line through Mason County. LCRA wants the county and the city to intervene in the PUC process. That would be a mistake and both the Mayor and the Judge know it. Yet, LCRA continues to push them in that direction.
All the more reason why what our courageous leaders are doing through the 391 commission is that much more important. Through the Mason Sub-Regional Planning Commission, both the city and the county have now forced the federal government – U.S. Fish and Wildlife and soon the Environmental Protection Agency – to simply follow the law and perform a "full and rigorous" environmental impact statement before anything can proceed through the county.
"LCRA would like nothing more than for us to make a mistake and intervene in the administrative process in Austin," explained Judge Jerry Bearden. "We aren’t saying individuals or the Hill Country Heritage Association shouldn’t intervene, but we understand that if the city or the county does, we could be prevented from going to federal court to enforce the federal laws on them," he continued.
"Fred Grant, an attorney with American Stewards of Liberty has told us that LCRA has claimed what’s called ‘exclusive jurisdiction,’ meaning they will argue that we can’t ask two different courts for relief if we have filed with the Public Utility Commission and saddled ourselves to the state administrative process," said Brent Hinckley, mayor of Mason. "We simply aren’t going to limit ourselves because we know LCRA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife must comply with federal law before they can start any kind of transmission line in our county," Hinckley explained.
Last week, the Mason Sub-Regional Planning Commission told LCRA in a seven-page letter that if they attempt to construct their transmission line through Mason before the proper studies are fulfilled, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife cannot lawfully issue the incidental take permit necessary for construction to begin. LCRA has taken the position that they are only responsible for submitting a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and that there is no requirement that the various routes be studied and compared (a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act - NEPA process), rather they will only be studying the route ultimately selected by the PUC.
They made it clear that their obligation is under the ESA and not NEPA. However, in its response letter, the Commission pointed to the rules governing the preparation of an HCP where it is mandated by the Federal Law that an HCP must include a rigorous comparison of all reasonable alternatives, or routes. "In essence," commented Judge Bearden, "while LCRA was trying to run away from the NEPA process, they ended up running right into it."
The federal government must complete their EIS before any route can be chosen or any construction can begin, and the Hill Country Heritage Association, along with the MSRPC will stand our ground to make sure they follow the law. The Judge has told LCRA to proceed at your own risk. That’s about as plain and direct as it gets. Thank the good Lord we have strong and moral leaders in our community.