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Landowners fighting power line plan near wetlands

GREAT FALLS – A group of north-central Montana landowners are fighting a state decision to allow construction work on a power transmission line to occur within 50 feet of wetlands.

The landowners, who live between Dutton and Cut Bank, argue the Department of Environmental Quality broke the law by not accepting public comment before approving a permit amendment.

Maurer Farms Inc. and Somerfeld & Sons Land and Livestock, both of Power; Larry and Shirley Salois of Cut Bank and Dutton’s Jerry McRae and Katrina Martin are filing a single appeal, represented by attorney Hertha Lund.

The DEQ’s Lisa Peterson tells the Great Falls Tribune the appeal would be on the agenda of the Board of Environmental Review meeting in December.

Tonbridge Power Inc., is building a 200-mile, high-voltage transmission line between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta to carry wind energy.

The DEQ approved a permit in 2008 that said Tonbridge had to maintain a 50-foot buffer to protect wetlands.

This summer, Tonbridge sought an amended permit to allow construction activity within 50 feet of wetlands. The DEQ said it would allow such work if there were no reasonable alternatives.

The landowners’ appeal argues the DEQ released three alternatives to Tonbridge’s request to the public but didn’t choose any of them. Therefore, they argue, the DEQ’s alternative allowing the work in the wetlands was not presented for public comment, violating the Major Facilities Citing Act.

The landowners also argue wetland soils will be harmed and construction will encroach on private property if work is allowed within 50 feet of wetlands. The landowners also argue that Tonbridge sought the change primarily to make more money rather than for the public good.

Tonbridge has said that it appealed the final permit because it contained language barring any impact on wetlands, even though the environmental study did contemplate some impacts.

Tonbridge has agreed to offset any temporary disturbance by making payments to a statewide wetland mitigation fund. Permanent guy wires and structures will not be allowed in the wetlands.

The power line would cross wetlands at 37 locations, but wetlands would be dry during the construction period, according to Tonbridge. To limit the impact, it said, large oak mats would be placed on the ground for vehicles to drive on.

Larry Salois and his mother, Shirley, also are fighting a condemnation complaint that Tonbridge has filed to obtain right of way for the project. That case was heard in District Court in Cut Bank, but the judge has not ruled.