MSTI: Judge’s ruling will provide avenue for local input, County officials still unclear on consultation process

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality must consult with Jefferson County officials about a proposal for a major electricity transmission line project, ordered a judge last week.

However, just what that means for Madison County is still unknown.

The ruling from District Court Judge Loren Tucker came as part of a lawsuit Jefferson County Commissioners filed against Montana DEQ over the proposed Mountain State Transmission Intertie, which is a proposal to run 500 kilovolt transmission lines from Townsend to southern Idaho through Madison County and southwest Montana.

However, the specifics of the ruling are still being worked out, said Mathew Johnson, Jefferson County Attorney.

What is certain, though is that Jefferson County and other local governments are going to get a seat at the table when state agencies begin analyzing projects that impact local communities and governments, Johnson said.

“This is going to require them to come down to cities, towns and counties and interact with us not just once but in a continuing fashion,” he said. “Realistically, what this could do is impact any other EISs (environmental impact statement) that occur in the state of Montana.”

MSTI is a project proposed by NorthWestern Energy. Montana DEQ and the Bureau of Land Management, along with other state and federal agencies, are analyzing the project.

The two agencies held several scoping meetings with the public and local officials in 2008.

Then the agencies began work on a draft EIS, which analyzes various alternatives and impacts the project has to people and wildlife.

Jefferson County filed a lawsuit last spring to try and force DEQ to give them more input into the draft EIS process than just the scoping meetings.

They focused their legal argument on consultation language put into law by the 2003 Montana legislature, which basically said state agencies must coordinate with local government on analyzing project proposals, Johnson said.

However, the legislature didn’t specify what consultation should look like, he said.

In his ruling, Tucker asked Jefferson County and their attorneys to draft his final order. If it meets his approval and the approval of the DEQ’s attorneys, then he’ll sign it.

Writing the order will give some definition to the consultation process, Johnson said.

“Basically the consultation is not just that initial scoping process,” he said. “This is an ongoing process that requires meetings with DEQ throughout the process.”

Prior to Tucker’s decision, BLM officials said a draft EIS could be ready by mid-September, depending on the lawsuit.

With the ruling, it’s anybody’s guess as to when a draft EIS will be released.

“DEQ and Jefferson County are supposed to figure out what the process will be for consultation,” said Tom Ring, project spokesman with DEQ. “IF there’s an agreement then we’ll move forward with that. If there’s not agreement, evidently we’re supposed to bring it back to the judge.”

Madison County is waiting for Tucker to sign the final order as well before they determine their next step, said Madison County Commissioner Marilyn Ross.

“That will give us an idea of what the judge is actually ordering DEQ to do,” Ross said. “When we do know that we will be writing to DEQ director (Richard) Opper asking that Madison County be allowed to also recommend alternate routes.”

However, Ross is quick to point out that Tucker’s ruling only allows local governments a more prominent seat at the table with the DEQ. It doesn’t stop MSTI from moving forward.

“This is not a decision to stop the MSTI line,” she said. “All this is, is a ruling on the process.”

Madison County officials are going to be very interested in being involved as the process in analyzing MSTI and its proposed routes move forward.

“We’re following this all very closely and intend to certainly give our opinion, be part of the process and suggest alternatives,” Ross said.

The DEQ could appeal Tucker’s decision to the Montana Supreme Court. A decision whether or not to appeal is still being discussed, according to Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for DEQ.

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