July 24, 2008

DOE Officials Like Proposal for Rattlesnake Mountain Access

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.

Jul. 24--The Department of Energy has agreed in principle with a proposal that could mean continued use of Rattlesnake Mountain for emergency and other radio communication and possible limited operation of the Rattlesnake Mountain Observatory.

DOE responded this week to a proposal by Energy Northwest to consolidate public communication systems into a single new tower and then tear down the old towers scattered on the mountaintop. An easement is proposed to transfer responsibility for maintaining the road up the mountain from DOE to another agency, possibly En-ergy Northwest or Benton County.

"We recognize that the communications facilities on the mountain provide a critical service to the Tri-Cities and the region, and we support continued operation of those facilities with changes that reduce the impact on the mountain," said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree.

DOE also is considering whether it could allow remote operation of the observatory and its telescope and occasional access to the mountain to maintain it, Tyree said.

"Our goal is to find solutions that support the mountain users' needs while protecting cultural and biological resources on the mountain and reducing the impact of people and facilities on the mountain," Tyree said.

In March, DOE notified 12 agencies and private companies using the mountain in the security perimeter of the Hanford nuclear reservation that they must move. The mountain top has been closed to the public since Hanford was established during World War II.

DOE's move this spring to end leases on the mountaintop was in response to tribal requests to protect an area covered by treaties that the tribes have used historically and consider sacred. DOE also has been concerned about the need to use money intended for cleanup of the nuclear reservation to repair the deteriorating primitive road to the top of the mountain.

The Energy Northwest proposal, however, would be consistent with DOE's goal of reducing the manmade footprint on the mountain, said a letter sent this week to Energy Northwest by DOE realty officer Boyd Hathaway.

The Yakama Nation agrees that emergency communication needs to be maintained and the Energy Northwest proposal could do that, said Portia Shields, secretary of the tribal council.

Before making a decision, DOE will need more information, Hathaway wrote.

Energy Northwest hired a communication engineering company this spring to look at alternatives to Rattlesnake Mountain for emergency communication towers. It concluded that no location in Benton or Franklin counties would offer communication coverage required under its emergency plan as approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power reactor north of Richland.

Energy Northwest proposes to build a new Combined Community Communications Facility that would replace six structures now on the mountain. It would provide communication capabilities for 21 agencies, including DOE, Benton County Emergency Services, Franklin County Emergency Services, the Oregon Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program and the Washington State Patrol. They would be required to contribute to the costs of the tower.

DOE is interested is determining whether three private companies now using towers on the mountain -- Day Wireless, Columbia Communication and Crown Castle -- also could use the new communication tower, possibly through the addition of a sixth bay. It also is interested in whether the new center could provide radio communication for the Rattlesnake Mountain Observatory, which was built for research in 1971 and now is owned by the nonprofit Alliance for the Advancement of Science Through Astronomy.

DOE believes the Energy Northwest proposal could allow as many as 14 public and private facilities to be removed from the mountain.

The agency also is asking Energy Northwest for more information on granting an easement for 9.4 miles of road from Highway 225 to the proposed communication center. The proposal does not include improvements to the primitive road, only maintenance to allow access to the new communication center.

The easement and responsibility for maintaining the road should be given to Benton County, said Benton County Commissioner Max Benitz.

Energy Northwest would have the communications tower built off site and then installed using a skid assembly on top of already disturbed soil. Once the tower is operating, DOE would work with tenants on the mountain to remove their surplus towers within a couple of years.

DOE also has met with the tribes to discuss the proposal and other plans, according to Hathaway. He told Energy Northwest the meetings were productive and reinforced the desire to protect the cultural and biological resources of the mountain. In addition to the role the mountain plays in tribal practices and beliefs, it also is an oasis of land that has had little human disturbance to plant and animal life since the 1940s.

DOE officials also met Wednesday night in Prosser with about 45 ranchers who own land on the mountain to discuss a revised registration determining eligibility of DOE land on the mountain for the National Register of Historic Places. The registration will be submitted to the Washington State Historic Preservation Office.

Concerns raised a month ago by ranchers largely were alleviated by the revisions, which addressed only the eligibility for federal property and did not include a map showing private land that tribes consider part of Laliik, land sacred to the tribes on Rattlesnake Mountain.

Although Laliik extends onto private land, the Yakama Nation cannot convert private lands into traditional cultural property, Shields said. Ranchers were concerned that submitting a map that included private lands as part of Laliik could open the door to archaeological or other restrictions on how they use their property.


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