TWIN BRIDGES – Don’t let anyone tell you people in the Jefferson Valley can’t agree on anything.
Judging by the meeting last Thursday at the Twin Bridges High School, they all agree on one thing – they don’t want NorthWestern Energy’s proposed transmission line in their valley.
The meeting was held by the Madison County Commissioners and featured presentations from NorthWestern Energy, the Bureau of Land Management and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The focus of the meeting was the Mountain States Transmission Intertie, which is being proposed by NorthWestern Energy and would be a 500-kilovolt power line between Townsend and a point in southern Idaho near Boise.
Originally, the proposal called for the line to be built along a line between Townsend and Three Forks and then follow Interstate 90 to Interstate 15 west of Butte. Then the line was slated to go south into Idaho along the Interstate 15 corridor.
But early drafts of the draft Environmental Impact Statement have changed the preferred alternative route to run south through the Jefferson River Valley next to the towns of Whitehall, Silver Star and Twin Bridges. This route is known as alternate route 2c.
This change in the proposal has captured the concerns of Madison County residents and officials.
The impetus for MSTI was the demand NorthWestern was receiving from people who were looking to generate wind power and needed a way to transmit the power, said Mike Cashell, NorthWestern’s chief transmission officer.
Under the federal energy deregulation statutes, NorthWestern must provide electricity producers access to its transmission system. If they don’t have a transmission system that will accommodate the electricity, then they must expand the system, Cashell told the crowd of nearly 150 people.
However, if the company must expand their transmission capabilities to accommodate more electricity, then cost will be paid by contracts with the electricity generators, not ratepayers, he said.
“We have a lot of customers who want to connect to our system,” Cashell said. “Our transmission system isn’t built today to provide service to all those transmission customers. We’ve got thousands of megawatts of potential generators who want to connect to our system.”
NorthWestern presented its proposal for MSTI to Montana DEQ and the BLM in July of 2008. The review began then and the two agencies are lead on the process to develop a draft EIS, said Tim Bozorth, with the BLM out of Dillon.
Work on the draft EIS has been held up some by a lawsuit filed against the Montana DEQ by Jefferson County Commissioners over the process of analyzing MSTI.
However, Bozorth is optimistic the draft EIS can be released next month.
“We hope to get it out by mid-September for a three month public comment period,” he said.
As it’s planned, MSTI is too big for the Jefferson Valley, said Cam Cooper of Twin Bridges.
“Huge is too small of a word for MSTI, the scope of which is huge,” Cooper said.
She rattled off the statistics for the crowd: towers up to 140 feet tall, right of ways 220 feet wide and the entire project would be about 430 miles long.
And as a result of MSTI, Madison County would see very little permanent job creation, while residents would see their property values plummet from having the 500-kilovolt lines going either through or near their land.
Cooper implored the Madison County Commissioners to stand against MSTI.
“Show the same guts and commitment as the Jefferson County Commissioners have,” she said to a loud applause from the crowd. “MSTI is a mess. Help us stop this MSTI madness.”
Someone asked Cashell why the preferred route was changed from going through Butte to down the Jefferson River Valley.
Cashell didn’t have an answer, since the change of preferred route was done during the development of the draft EIS, which is still on going. And until the draft EIS is done, it’s hard to know for sure what the preferred route will be.
“I don’t know that it’s fair to say yet that the route has been changed,” he said. “Right now they’re all just routes.”
When asked if NorthWestern Energy would use eminent domain to acquire right of ways from unwilling landowners, Cashell said yes, but it wouldn’t be their preferred method.
“We don’t like to use eminent domain and we use it very infrequently,” he said.
He also reminded people that eminent domain was a court process where the easement value was determined.
“What eminent domain does is it takes the process to the courts and the courts determine what is right,” Cashell said.
For Leonard Wortman, Jefferson County Comissioner, the eminent domain issue is a big deal. In Jefferson County, much of MSTI’s proposed route is on private property.
“I’ll be darned if I’ll stand by and let a big corporation or government take land from residents in Jefferson County so Las Vegas can run their lights all night,” Wortman told the crowd, receiving a loud applause.
The fate of MSTI is still unknown. NorthWestern Energy is currently going through what is called an “Open Season” process to sign up electricity generators who would use MSTI to long-term supply contracts.
If there isn’t enough demand to build the line, then it won’t get built, Cashell said.
“If the economics don’t work for us, then we won’t build the line,” he said.
Also an unknown is the outcome of the draft EIS process. Once it is issued, the BLM and DEQ will diligently seek public comment, Bozorth said.
But ultimately each agency – state and federal – involved is going to have to issue separate decisions concerning MSTI, he said.
The meeting was informative for Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.
It’s clear Madison County residents are not in favor of MSTI coming down the Jefferson River Valley, Schulz said after the meeting.
“Tonight helped align me with how I think I need to react to this,” he said.
When asked if he was in favor of MSTI, Schulz responded: “From what I heard tonight, no.”
Madison County Commissioner Marilyn Ross has been working hard to gather as much information as she could about MSTI. The information presented on Thursday night, she’d heard before. The point of the meeting was to get the public more informed.
“That’s what we really hoped would happen,” Ross said. “I really think (the meeting) was a success in that regard.”
Like Schulz, Ross believes the sentiment from Madison County residents is decidedly against MSTI coming through the Jefferson Valley. And she agrees.
“At this point I certainly think that this particular route … is not a good route,” she said.
The next public meeting concerning MSTI will be sponsored by the Beaverhead Outdoor Association and Keep It Rural on Thursday, Aug. 5 at 6 p.m. in the Swysgood Technology Center on the campus of the University of Montana Western in Dillon. Montana Public Service Commissioner John Vincent and representatives from the Madison County Commissioners, NorthWestern Energy and the BLM will be on hand to discuss potential local impacts of the proposed MSTI line.