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Policy: Environment & Energy

Lawsuits could be costly for New Mexico electric co-op

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Associated Press,New Mexico,Energy and Environment,Electricity

SANTA FE, N.M. — Lawsuits stemming from a 2011 wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes as it raced across more than 230 square miles of northern New Mexico's Jemez Mountains could end up costing a local electric cooperative millions of dollars.

General Manager Ernest Gonzales told The Santa Fe New Mexican in story published Sunday that it's too soon to know how much Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative will have to pay and how the costs will affect its members.

"We're still in the discovery phase," he said.

A two-year deadline has passed for plaintiffs to sue over the Las Conchas Fire, which was sparked when a tree fell onto a power line.

The co-op, Tri-State Generation and an Espanola tree service are being sued by more than 50 property owners and insurance companies over damage caused by the fire. The pueblos of Cochiti and Jemez also have filed claims against the co-op and the U.S. Forest Service. Tri-State provides power to member co-ops.

The plaintiffs blame the co-op for not keeping the power line easement clear of trees and say the tree service may have had a contract to do so. They also blame the Forest Service for not granting the co-op a wide enough easement to keep tall trees from falling onto the power lines.

Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative is the state's largest rural electric cooperative, serving customers in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, San Juan, Sandoval and McKinley counties. Since the co-op is owned by its members, anything that affects the cooperative's costs is ultimately paid by the members.

Attorney Turner Branch in Albuquerque is representing 26 of the property owners who filed claims. He expects the court to appoint a special master in the next few months to calculate the value of homes, vehicles and other property burned in the fire.

Cochiti and Jemez filed civil claims in June. The pueblos and Cochiti's private enterprise corporation each claim the fire and post-fire flooding caused more than $15 million in damage.

According to the claims, a 60-foot-tall "visibly diseased and dying aspen tree" on private property fell onto a power line that was on an easement through the Santa Fe National Forest and ignited the Las Conchas Fire on June 26, 2011.

The claimants say the Santa Fe National Forest is at fault for giving the co-op only a 20-foot-wide easement in a 1995 agreement. The claims allege there were already trees outside the easement that were tall enough to fall on the line when the agreement was signed.

All the claims filed in state district court were consolidated Oct. 15. The court will hear motions Jan. 7 about how the case should move forward and how many trials there will be.

The first trial likely will begin in September, said Tom Tosdal, an attorney whose firm represents the pueblos and a ranch owner.

Besides the claims related to the fire, the co-op is facing other increased costs. Tri-State is proposing to raise rates charged to Jemez Mountains Electric and other member cooperatives. In addition, Jemez Mountains Electric must pay for new leases for power line easements across tribal property.

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