Rep. Young proposes reviving Susitna Dam project

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Congressman Don Young wants to resurrect plans to dam the Susitna River for a massive hydroelectric project.

The dam proposal spawned years of controversy in the 1980s before the state abandoned the idea.

''I'm reviving it,'' Young told Alaska reporters in his Capitol Hill office Tuesday. ''It's one of the bills I'm going to introduce, try to get it going again. It's absolutely necessary. There's no reason why we don't build it.''

He provided few details about the plan he would propose. The project studied in the 1980s involved dams at Devils Canyon north of Talkeetna and at Watana Creek to the east.

In the early 1980s, cost estimates for the dams ran to more than $5 billion. The state spent more than $130 million studying the idea before it foundered.

Environmentalists and fishing enthusiasts said at the time that the dams would threaten fish and wildlife habitat.

Representatives of environmental groups contacted Tuesday sounded flabbergasted when told Young was staging the dam's comeback.

''You're kidding. You are kidding -- The Susitna dam? Wow,'' said Peter Van Tuyn, an attorney at Trustees for Alaska. The group fought the project before Van Tuyn worked for the group.

''I just remember that it failed on economic grounds as much as anything else,'' he said.

Randy Virgin, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, was at a loss for words.

''I don't even know where to start. I mean it's just so ludicrous,'' Virgin said. ''It was going to break the bank back when we were flush with (state oil) dollars. Even if there's federal money, it just seems so out of the ball park.''

Young, though, said the project makes good economic sense and will provide a legacy for future generations. An abundant, cheap source of electricity will attract industry, he said.

''Of course it can pay for itself,'' he said. ''It won't pay for itself with the market we have now, but you generate market. You have an abundance of anything and there'll be a market for it. I can see Boeing coming to Alaska.''

He said the dam would cause no environmental damage.

''This is very poor salmon habitat,'' he said, although he acknowledged others will disagree with him.

Young didn't reveal much about how he plans to pursue the project.

Keith Ashdown, communications director for the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said it's not surprising to see a lawmaker try to resuscitate big projects.

''We call this 'the budget of the living dead phenomenon,' '' Ashdown said. ''No project ever dies in this country. You kill them and they come back to life at the most inopportune time.''

He said Young, as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, can probably get the dam included in the major national water bill. But, he said, lawmakers who load the bill with big home state projects often find they've derailed the bill's chances of passage.

''There's a big political pitfall in him doing this,'' Ashdown said.

Young may get help from Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who also recently mentioned the possibility of reviving the Susitna dam project.

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