Madison County Commissioners have decided to take the administrative lead on a project to analyze the potential impacts of the Mountain States Transmission Intertie.
The project is a groundbreaking collaboration between local governments, conservation groups and industry and could involve counties from Montana and Idaho, including Beaverhead and Jefferson Counties, and be funded in large part by NorthWestern Energy, who is proposing MSTI.
The idea for the collaboration came last month after a presentation to Madison County by a handful of conservation groups spearheaded by the Western Environmental Law Center out of Helena.
Madison County had contracted with WELC to provide them some analysis and information of MSTI and its impacts along the routes proposed for the project through southwest Montana.
MSTI is a project proposed by NorthWestern Energy to build 500-kilovolt transmission lines from Townsend to Jerome, Idaho. The lines are proposed to cross a combination of federal, state and private lands. The Bureau of Land Management and Montana Department of Environmental Quality are handling the permits for the project in Montana. The public process both agencies have been undertaking concerning MSTI began in 2008.
However, the first routes proposed for MSTI were along the Interstate 15 corridor from Butte through Dillon. But later, a preferred route was proposed through the Jefferson River Valley and the western edge of Madison County.
At that point the Madison County Commissioners took an active role in looking into the project.
The presentation orchestrated by WELC last month had a variety of components, including economic and community impacts. The analysis included work from four different organizations besides WELC – the Sonoran Institute, Headwaters Economics, Future West and the Craighead Institute.
In a collaborative effort, the groups developed a model to ascertain and utilize public input concerning MSTI’s impacts on a variety of things from community values to agriculture. This, combined with information on potential impacts to wildlife, could provide a map of potential routes for the powerline.
The presentation last month was just a test of the model. To make it more useful, it will need to be expanded to include counties all along MSTI’s propose route in both Idaho and Montana, Monique DiGiorgio told commissioners at a meeting Friday.
The next step for the project will be the outreach to other counties along MSTI’s proposed route to further expand the information gathered for the model, she said.
The surprising aspect of it is that NorthWestern Energy came to the table with more than $230,000 of funding, DiGiorgio said.
The funding was requested by Jefferson and Madison Counties after the presentation last month, she said.
“WELC then shepherded that request by putting together a scope of work and deliverables that included our partners Future West, Craighead Institute, Sonoran Institute, and Headwaters Economics,” DiGiorgio wrote in an email Tuesday. “To ensure that counties remain invested in the project, and are the primary driving force, we opted to look into Madison County continuing to financially administer the project with the non-profits providing their work as a third party consultative group.”
However, crucial to the success of this unique partnership will be transparency, Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel said at Friday’s meeting.
“We need to make sure it’s a totally objective and clean process that has none of the fingerprints of NorthWestern Energy on the outcomes,” Happel said.
The partnership is unique because it puts the county in the lead role in ascertaining information to inform the agencies ultimately deciding the fate of MSTI, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.
It would be easy for the commissioners to say they don’t want MSTI coming through Madison County, but with this new study, that opinion could be backed by lots of information and facts.
“In any case simply and essentially we wanted some qualified information before we said yes or no to this,” Schulz said. “Our objective and our entire intent is to look out for the people of Madison County.”
The next step for the project will be to get a contract between Madison County and NorthWestern Energy for the project funding. Then the process of reaching out to counties in both Idaho and Montana will begin in earnest.
The next phases will include public meetings and outreach along with data analysis. The final product is expected to be ready in nine months, DiGiorgio said.