Madison County Commissioners took public comment on Tuesday concerning the controversial Mountain States Transmission Intertie in an effort to learn more about how residents feel about the project.
Nearly 40 people crowded into the commissioner chambers in Virginia City to speak their mind about the project. None of the approximately 12 citizens who spoke were in favor of the project.
The MSTI is a proposed 500-kilovolt power line that will begin in Townsend and end near Jerome, Idaho. The main purpose NorthWestern Energy has stated for the project is to transmit electricity from Montana south to buyers around the West.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Bureau of Land Management are currently analyzing the project. The two agencies are working together on a draft Environmental Impact Statement, said Tim Bozorth, director at the BLM’s Dillon field office.
Initially, the proposed line was going to run south from Townsend to Interstate 90 and then go west to Butte and then south again on Interstate 15. But now the preferred alternative being considered is to run the line down the west side of the Jefferson River Valley and then cross the Big Hole near Notch Bottom south of Twin Bridges. This line would then follow Interstate 15 from near Dillon south into Idaho.
For Madison County Commissioners, this shift in plan got them involved and led to the meeting Tuesday, said commissioner Dave Schulz.
“It’s only been a short time ago, in my opinion, when the line was going to Butte and Madison County wasn’t even in the mix,” Schulz said.
Commissioner Jim Hart agreed.
“At this stage Madison County has not taken any position on this, in part, because we weren’t sure what direction the line would go,” Hart told the crowd. “You all will help us make that decision.”
Jefferson County has taken a fairly firm stand in opposition to the MSTI and the process under which the project has been analyzed. The county has sued the DEQ alleging the agency excluded the county from the analysis process for the power line.
NorthWestern Energy has claimed that counties the MSTI travels through will receive more in property taxes, but Roberta Raffety doesn’t believe that’s going to be true.
Raffety ranches along the Big Hole River between Dillon and Twin Bridges and is adamantly opposed to the project.
She doesn’t think the property tax numbers put forth by NorthWestern Energy take into account the decline in property values that will come from the enormous transmission lines.
“When you take everybody into this picture do the property tax revenues from MSTI, will they pay the county more than MSTI will damage the county?” she asked the commissioners. “I’m asking you not to be seduced by the immediate money you see coming from this project.”
Dan Rapkoch, communications manager for NorthWestern Energy presented the commissioners with estimates that Beaverhead County could see an increase in mill value by 50 percent, which would increase property tax revenues by about $8 million.
The need for the transmission line is to provide access to the power grid for wind energy projects being developed in Montana, said Rapkoch.
However, there certainly is no guarantee that only renewable energy will be put on the power lines if they are built. NorthWestern could use the line for coal-generated power.
“The whole truth is under federal orders. We can’t deny access to providers,” Rapkoch said.
Several people commenting on the project were concerned that NorthWestern Energy would push the project through in hopes of having customers to buy the energy. If that failed, the people in southwest Montana would be left with an enormous power line running through their backyard, Raffety said.
“Why should our communities bare the costs of corporation’s profits?” she asked.
Rapkoch was adamant that MSTI would not be built if there weren’t energy companies at the other end willing to sign 10-year contracts to buy power.
“This transmission line is not being built on spec,” he said.
If the line crosses private land, NorthWestern will have to negotiate for an easement for the line, Rapkoch said. If the landowner doesn’t want to provide an easement, then the company could pursue eminent domain. However, even if a court granted eminent domain, the company would still have to pay for the easement.
Eminent domain would be the process to gain the easement despite the landowner’s objections.
Where the line would cross public land, the responsible agency for gauging and analyzing the impacts are the BLM.
Currently, the draft EIS is still in the process of being finalized, Bozorth said. The agency, along with DEQ and NorthWestern Energy held many scoping meetings around southwest Montana during the past two years in an effort to find out concerns people had about the MSTI.
The draft EIS will address many of those concerns and will allow the public to see a range of alternatives for the project as well as an analysis of the impacts of the project, he said.
The BLM got involved in the project because NorthWestern Energy needed to get a right of way permit from the federal government to cross public land, Bozorth said.
“Our position is analyzing the impacts of the right of way request,” he told the crowd. “We’re not for it or against it at this point.”
Putting the line down the Jefferson and Big Hole River corridors doesn’t make much sense, said Bill Childrey from Glen.
Madison County, along with three neighboring counties, has worked hard to protect the Big Hole River and now these transmission lines will jeopardize that work, he said.
“You’re going to destroy the Big Hole from Notch Bottom to the Pennington Bridge,” Childrey said.
Plus, the transmission lines are being proposed depending on a market in the Southwest for Montana wind energy, but what happens if the market changes, he said.
“Solar power out of Arizona might replace the need for wind power out of Montana,” Childrey said. “Maybe our best bet is they can’t get the damn thing financed.”
Commissioner Marilyn Ross made a motion that the commission draft a letter in support of Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s request that the Montana DEQ take more time on the draft EIS to allow for more public comment and involvement. The motion passed unanimously and the commissioner agreed to put a discussion about MSTI on their agenda for the July 13 meeting.