Not since the Farm Bill that idled thousands of acres of dry cropland in the 1980s, has something-the proposed Great Falls to Alberta high-voltage power line-created such high stakes for area farmers, businesses and politicians.
The most recent event in a three-year long saga was the third and final public hearing in Conrad on March 13 for a privately-funded transmission line that would be built over cropland and grazing lands between a NorthWestern Energy substation near Rainbow Dam in Great Falls and a substation northeast of Lethbridge, Alta.
Three alternatives routes through Cascade, Chouteau, Teton, Pondera and Glacier counties and their impacts are detailed in a document issued on Feb. 15.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of Energy jointly released the draft environmental impact statement and a companion volume of responses to comments from a previous EIS. The new draft EIS is available online at www.deq.mt.gov/MFS/MATL.asp, and at the Conrad and Dutton public libraries during a 45-day comment period that ends March 31. The two agencies are inviting comments that will be incorporated in the final EIS and the heads of the agencies plan to make a decision on building the line 30 days after publishing the final report.
Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. of Calgary, Alta., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Toronto-based Tonbridge Power Inc., has been working through the regulatory processes on both sides of the border for three years. MATL proposes to construct and operate a 230-kilovolt, 215-mile long, “merchant” or private transmission line through northcentral Montana and southern Alberta. Wind energy developers have bought the 300-megawatts capacity on the bi-directional power line and have plans to develop wind farms between Conrad and Cut Bank.
DEQ and DOE staff told a packed crowd in Norley Hall that they wanted comments on what was right and what was wrong in the draft EIS and invited suggestions on how to correct it.
DEQ has certain criteria that a project must meet under the Major Facility Siting Act. Likewise, DOE must review projects that cross the international border and assess their environmental impacts.
Local business owners and area politicians support the MATL project and they lined up to say so at three public hearings. On March 13, the Great Falls Development Authority, several members of the Cut Bank and Sunburst communities, the Pondera and Toole county commissioners, Glacier Electric Cooperative Co., the Pondera Economic Development Corp., the Pondera Regional Port Authority, and the Conrad City Council gave unconditional support for MATL.
Pondera County Commissioner Sandra Broesder said the MATL line would broaden the tax base, and she added, “The line is critical for the sustainability of the community.” She said farming around the poles is “hard,” and she would like to see single poles where practical, but added that the line must be built.
Conrad city councilwoman Wendy Judisch said the economic pros outweigh the environmental cons.
State Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he wants to broaden the economic tax base, and said that MATL has changed its behavior that many farmers found objectionable when the MATL land agents first went about trying to obtain options for the right of way. Jones said he wanted a win-win and he believes that farmers would be compensated for the line’s impact.
State Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, said he wanted to see the issues resolved so that everyone is completely satisfied. According to Black, the MATL line would be the largest economic development in the region since the railroads came and oil was discovered.
But some people believe that more could be done to lessen the impact on farmers who would have to farm around poles forever, once the line is built.
Farmer Chris Stephens of Dutton said he has had to set the record straight numerous times regarding the farmers’ views, namely, that they are not opposed to the line, they just want the best route with the lowest impact. Stephens’ family farms in the counties where the line would be built and they would have at least a mile to a mile and a half of the line, depending upon the route.
“I am disappointed that all the county commissioners and local businesses are more concerned with the needs of MATL than they are of us longtime faithful taxpayers. We aren’t asking for much. We are asking only for a design of this line in a manner that the local cooperatives have long recognized as the proper design for the power infrastructure,” Stephens said.
According to Stephens, it is not a coincidence that the resistance to the line begins with the start of the proposed diagonal portion at Conrad and continues south to Great Falls as does the diagonal.
“One has to remember that along this portion of line, we aren’t talking about one diagonal line, we are talking about two as there is already a diagonal line that we have had to live with for 30 years,” he said.
He added, “The northern portion of the line has all the benefits-the north-south orientation and the wind development; the southern has all the impacts-the diagonal and no wind development. … We are asking only for this line to be built so that it doesn’t negatively impact people who have supported your schools and businesses before MATL arrived and will be here long after MATL leaves.”
He concluded, “We have chanted the mantra, ‘field lines, section lines, monopoles.’ MATL has not listened. They have always said, ‘too much money, too much money, too much money!'”
Getting to the content of the EIS, Stephens said the farmers are being offered a “pittance” to maintain the ground around the poles.
Shawn Dolan, who is a co-owner of 400 acres on Belgian Hill north of Conrad, said one of the routes being proposed might split his acreage in half, making a pivot installation impossible. He added that the MATL line would not have enough ground clearance for modern combines that have a whip antenna.
Both Dolan and Stephens said MATL should pay farmers for a 105-foot right of way, since the company is also asking for a no-build, 30-foot “safety zone” on either side of the 45-foot right of way.
Conrad business owner John McFarland said he supported the line but he also sided with Stephens saying that MATL should build the line on property lines and section lines. “The ag community is our greatest wealth, but the line is additional wealth,” he said.
Small business owner Ronald Ries said MATL must pass the “farmer friendly test” and he suggested that MATL might have more work to do.
Katrina Martin of Dutton has also expressed concern over the line’s impacts. In an interview after the hearing, she said landowners south of Conrad are bearing an unproportionately negative effect from MATL’s preferred route. “It’s not fair and we hope the company will work hard with the landowners to reduce the amount of diagonal line in cropland and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program).”
Also after the hearing, Conrad area farmer Allen Denzer said people say MATL is working hard to work with farmers, but he asked who that might be, because no one has contacted him from MATL for the past 18 months. He said DEQ’s Tom Ring has done an “outstanding job,” and suggested that Ring has been the only person that has provided mediation between MATL and farmers, which resulted in Alternative 4, a route that MATL says is too expensive to build.
Denzer added that he had no trouble negotiating with the builders of the Western Area Power Administration line years ago, who then designed a line that did not split lands, was built with single poles and had minimal impact on farmers. The difference now, he said, was that MATL started with a diagonal and has not wavered from it.
Farmer Jerry MacRae of Dutton echoed Denzer’s remarks. “I have not seen MATL do anything. I have seen them be polite and say they would do better, but I haven’t seen anything. MATL’s preferred route is a diagonal. Chris Stephens’ mantra, ‘field lines, section lines, monopoles,’ is exactly what we don’t have. Alternative 4 is the only solution.”
Stephens also told officials at the hearing that MATL would be given a tax break of at least $2 million per year or $100 million over 50 years. He said it is time for MATL to show its generosity and agree to spend the $4 million to $7 million to build Alternative 4 with monopoles.
“I have to wonder how much money is enough for these people. Is the $100 million tax relief that the taxpayers of Montana will have to replace – enough? Are the projected revenues of over a billion dollars in the first 10 years of operations – enough? Will the profits from the next five lines that Tonbridge President Johan van’t Hof promises his stockholders be enough?” Stephens asked.
Stephens was referring to a recent interview on a Canadian news network where Tonbridge President van’t Hof reportedly said that MATL has 30-year wind energy development contracts with an inflation payment factored in so the company knows what its revenues will be. He also said that the operation costs are very low, once the $150 million project is finished and that the company has already identified its next transmission line project.
By Nancy Thornton-Acantha reporter
19 March 2008
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