Madison County Commissioners want to continue to gather more information before they take a stance on a proposed electric transmission line between Townsend and southern Idaho.
Commissioners have sent a letter to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to officially ask the department to slow down on their review of the Mountain State Transmission Intertie proposal, but they’ve not heard a response, said commissioner Marilyn Ross.
The MSTI is a proposed 500-kilovolt transmission line that is being proposed by NorthWestern Energy to provide a way to get energy generated in Montana to states in the Southwest.
Despite an endorsement from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, the project has been controversial from the outset. Jefferson County Commissioners recently filed suit against Montana DEQ over their review process. The next hearing on that case will be July 28.
Citizens in Jefferson and Madison Counties have been voicing their opposition as well.
Originally, MSTI wasn’t planned to go through Madison County. It was slated to run from Townsend to Interstate 90 and then west to Butte and then south along Interstate 15 to Idaho. But as the project has changed during the review phase, the preferred route has shifted and now is slated to move south through the Jefferson River Valley past the Madison County towns of Silver Star and Twin Bridges.
Along with Montana DEQ, the Bureau of Land Management is reviewing the project. The BLM is the lead federal agency in the review process, said Tim Bozorth, BLM field director from Dillon.
However, the BLM is going to wait for Jefferson County’s suit against the DEQ to be worked out before they issue a draft environmental impact statement on the project.
“We’re not going to be issuing the EIS until that gets all settled,” Bozorth told Madison County Commissioners Tuesday. “We’re a co-lead with Montana DEQ and we’re not going to issue it without our co-lead.”
Ross has been collecting some information about the health and safety issues surrounding the 500-kilovolt powerlines as many citizens have expressed concern to her about the issue.
Bozorth explained that the draft EIS would also delve deeply in the health and safety of the lines.
“Those types of questions have been integral to the whole process from the beginning,” he said.
The economic impacts of the powerline to Madison County also need to be analyzed said commissioner Dave Schulz.
Bozorth was confident that he could get that information, specific to Madison County, included in the draft EIS as well.
“We should be able to provide you that information,” Bozorth said.
Citizens in the Jefferson Valley are very concerned about the whole project, said Ty Cobb, who lives near Twin Bridges and is a county commissioner candidate for Madison County Commission District 2.
“My objective of being here today is to be informed, which has been a problem,” Cobb said.
Madison County should have cooperating status with the BLM on the analysis of the project, he said.
It is true that Madison County doesn’t currently have cooperating agency status with the BLM on the project, Bozorth said. But a memorandum of understanding could be drawn up and signed. The agency is already drafting one for Jefferson County, which also wants cooperating agency status.
“The problem at this point is the role you can play this far down in the process is somewhat limited,” he said.
The agencies will look to the county for input and help on response to public comments once the draft EIS is released, Bozorth said. But if that is what the commissioners want, the BLM is more than happy to work with them.
“Certainly we can have a cooperating agency status MOU to you guys in short order,” he said.
Even if it weren’t for the lawsuit between Jefferson County and Montana DEQ, the BLM wouldn’t be ready to publish the draft EIS, Bozorth said.
The biggest thing the BLM is working on now has to do with the visual impacts of the powerline.
The towers in the project will be between 120 to 145 feet tall. The easement required for the lines will be 220 feet. The BLM is looking at how the project fits under their resource management plan as it pertains to visual resource management, Bozorth said.
“We’re trying to figure out how to address those visual resource management issues,” he said.
It seems like NorthWestern Energy is asking the government to do a lot of work on a project that may not even be built if the company can’t find customers for the electricity they want to put on the lines, Cobb said.
For the BLM’s part, the agency is simply analyzing a right of way request from NorthWestern, Bozorth said. And the agency will bill NorthWestern Energy for the cost of the review.
“It’s a cost reimbursement project,” he said. “NorthWestern Energy pays the bill not only for us but the third party contractor we hire to put together the environmental impact statement.”
But as to the question of whether there is a demand for this project, Bozorth said the EIS would look at that too.
NorthWestern Energy spokesman Dan Rapkoch also spoke about the need for the line.
In some states, like California, the government has passed laws requiring the state to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, like wind. However, in those states there isn’t the ability to produce that much renewable energy, so they’re looking to states like Montana that have untapped renewable energy resources, Rapkoch said.
NorthWestern Energy is not going to build the transmission lines unless customers come forward to buy the energy, he said.
However, right now there are no major north and south transmission lines out of Montana, Bozorth said. There’s a big question as to whether wind energy developers will build projects without a transmission line like MSTI in place.
“You have this whole sequence of who starts first and what happens,” Bozorth said.
It is important now for commissioners to continue to gather more information about the project and it’s potential impacts, Ross said. She proposed that the commissioners sponsor a public meeting in Twin Bridges in the near future. The other commissions, Schulz and Jim Hart both agreed to the idea, but a firm time and date weren’t announced at Tuesday’s meeting.
Petition started to try and address MSTI
A petition is beginning to circulate around Madison County that would change the county’s tall structure and tower ordinance so that voters would have final say on projects that involved commercial structures exceeding a certain height.
Eli Thompson of Virginia City is circulating the petition and was at Tuesday’s Madison County Commissioner meeting.
Thompson is planning on presenting his petition to the Madison County Commissioners at their July 20 meeting. He hopes they’ll agree to put the ordinance amendment on the November ballot. If they don’t, Thompson will have to gather signatures from 15 percent of the voters in Madison County by Aug. 19.
If the ordinance amendment were put on the ballot and passed by voters, it would mean that commercial projects that involved tall towers, like the Mountain States Transmission Intertie, would have to go before the voters to get their towers approved, he said.
“If they’re going to make money off the viewshed – the people’s quality of life – then they ought to have a say on it,” Thompson said.
It would also mean that other projects, like cell phone towers may also have to go before the voters for approval.