Commissioners from Madison, Jefferson and Beaverhead Counties listened Wednesday to a consortium of area nonprofit groups discuss their research into locating the controversial Mountain States Transmission Intertie line proposed by NorthWestern Energy.
The meeting was hosted by the Madison County Commissioners and was attended not only by commissioners from the other two counties, but by a handful of citizens, a representative from the Bureau of Land Management and representatives from NorthWestern Energy.
Leading the meeting was Monique DiGiorgio, from the Western Environmental Law Center. DiGiorgio and WELC were hired last fall as consultants to help the county commissioners respond more effectively to the agencies analyzing the MSTI proposal and its potential impacts.
What DiGiorgio and her partners developed was a method to look at the economic impacts of MSTI and a system for incorporating public input, environmental impacts and engineering costs into the sighting of the huge transmission line that would carry electricity out of Montana into Idaho and points south.
Besides WELC, representatives from the Sonoran Institue, Craighead Foundation, Future West, Renewable Northwest Project and Headwaters Economic worked on the project.
MSTI is a proposed 500-kilovolt transmission line that would run from Townsend south, exiting Montana along Interstate 15 at Monida Pass. The project is being proposed by NorthWestern Energy and their request for right of ways through public and private land is being processed by the BLM and Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The initial proposal seemed to route the line down Interstate 15 from Butte through Dillon. However, later analysis pointed to the Jefferson River Valley as a more preferred route, raising concerns with many residents from Whitehall to Dillon.
That proposed route got the attention of Madison County Commissioners, who decided to pay $7,500 to WELC to help fund the study the work presented last week.
The main reason for bring WELC and its partners to the table was to gather more information to better respond to the draft EIS that will eventually be released on the MSTI project, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.
“We simply felt that in order to substantiate our opinion, we wanted some credible and valuable information to support us,” Schulz said.
Central to Wednesday’s presentation was a map developed based on three essential pods of information: public input, environmental impacts and engineering cost.
The map project was put together by Brent Brock from the Craighead Foundation and Cameron Ellis from the Sonoran Institute.
The map provides an idea of where a transmission line the magnitude of MSTI would be suitable based on public input, the cost to wildlife and wildlife habitat, and construction cost associated with terrain.
While the wildlife impacts and construction cost were complicated sets of information to gather, they were available, Ellis said. The public input into the where the lines would be appropriate was information that had yet to be gathered.
In fact, Ellis and his partners actually had to develop a matrix to gather the public input in a meaningful way.
Basically, the matrix they developed allows people to attach number values to a variety of community assets like viewsheds, building densities and land uses. The matrix ultimately provides a quantifiable method for gathering public input.
DiGiorgio called it a “transparent, interactive process.”
“That’s something that’s happening for the first time in this way,” she said.
At this point, the matrix created by Ellis and his partners hasn’t been used with the public, but was provided to Jefferson and Madison County Commissioners, who filled it out based on their feelings.
Once the commissioners’ responses were combined with environmental and engineering costs, a map was produced showing which routes were best. And though the results are very preliminary, that map seemed to prefer a route around the Boulder Valley in Jefferson County, through Butte and down Interstate 15 to Monida Pass.
Attendees at the meeting also discussed how to use the information and if it would be used in drafting the EIS.
Tim Bozorth, field manager with the BLM in Dillon was optimistic it could be incorporated into the draft EIS.
It wasn’t that the data presented was new, Bozorth said after the meeting, it was that the public input portion of it was quantifiable as presented by Ellis.
“It also factors in – in a quantitative sense – more of the input from the local county commissioners, instead of relying on state and federal agencies to incorporate that information themselves through scoping and comment letters,” he said. “It’s a different way of looking at things and I think it’s very valuable.”
However, NorthWestern Energy officials at the meeting Wednesday were more cautious.
“We’d want to understand pretty well how this might match up with the current process,” said Mike Cashell, chief transmission officer with NorthWestern Energy.
The BLM and DEQ officials will meet over the next month or so to decide how to incorporate the information presented on Wednesday, Bozorth said.
For DiGiorgios part, her group would like to continue analyzing both the sighting questions about the transmission line and the economic impacts of it to local communities and counties.
Bozorth figured a draft EIS would be released in the next year and then both the BLM and DEQ would take public comment on the draft. In the meantime, neither agency will stop gathering public comment and looking at new information, he said.
Schulz hopes that DiGiorgio’s presentation will help spur more counties and agencies to help support the study. Right now the pertinent question is MSTI, but the information being gathered by WELC and its partners will be useful when other companies look to put power lines through Madison County, he said.