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County gets say in MSTI location

BOULDER – A judge ordered state officials here Wednesday to meet with Jefferson County commissioners to give them a say in where a proposed major power line should be built within the county.

Judge Loren Tucker said the state Department of Environmental Quality hadn’t done enough to let county officials give input on the best route for the controversial Mountain States Transmission Intertie, or MSTI, power line. The NorthWestern Energy 500kV line has been in the planning stage for over three years.

“DEQ has concluded and insisted that Jefferson County should be kept out of the process for a certain period of time,” Tucker said in Boulder district court with more than 40 people in the room. “Jefferson County should have ample time to consider all of the data.”

The ruling was a major victory for the county.

Commissioners sued DEQ this year to try to force the agency to sit down and listen to their concerns over where the line should go. They asked for an injunction that would halt the line until the county is consulted.

State officials at the time said they had tried to involve commissioners as much as possible. Lawyers for DEQ and NorthWestern Wednesday reiterated those arguments, saying the county knew of the line three years ago and submitted comments during the “scoping period” for the environmental impact statement.

“They imply that they’ve been blindsided by the project – that somebody came to them on Aug. 8, 2008, and said ‘Here’s this huge project,'” said John Tabaracci, a lawyer representing NorthWestern. “The fact is they were consulted a year and three months before that.”

Ed Hayes, DEQ attorney, said the agency accepted comments from the county both before and well after the two-month scoping period in 2008. He argued Jefferson County was given ample opportunity to comment and did so.

But Peter Scott, a Helena lawyer hired by Jefferson County, said scoping is merely used to identify the issues surrounding a project. He said the real input needs to come in planning the route for a line, of which Jefferson County was completely shut out.

“Scoping cannot satisfy the requirement to consult: in order for that to occur you have to know what the impacts are,” Scott said. “The scoping notice does not say this will be the only opportunity that Jefferson County has to sit down with DEQ face to face and identify the issues it may have.”

And state law requires that state officials consult with cooperating agencies, including local governments, Scott said.

Tucker agreed. He said while he rejected the county’s view that scoping provides no significant input, the law doesn’t set parameters about when an agency must consult with local governments. Tucker added his ruling in favor of the county was due to DEQ’s position that it is not required to consult with local governments while planning, which he said is contrary to state law.

“The Legislature clearly set out that a county’s opinion is to be considered,” he said. “There is an ongoing duty to consult.”

Jefferson County Attorney Matt Johnson said the ruling is a victory for county and city governments statewide.

“State agencies will have to include local governments far more during the drafting of an EIS,” he said.