A proposal to develop a power-generating facility – including two reservoirs – on the recently acquired Iron Mask property in the Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Townsend is running into opposition even before a feasibility study has begun.
In written comments on Gridflex Energy’s application for a preliminary permit, representatives of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Elkhorn Working Group, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service all note that the project probably isn’t appropriate for the proposed site. They note that the project would be in the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Unit, which is a unique designation in which the land is managed specifically for the benefit of the wild animals that inhabit it.
The Elkhorn Working Group adds that the 5,500-acre Iron Mask parcel acquisition for $2.75 million from a private party was only finalized in 2007 and that it was bought for the explicit purpose of removing the threat of development there.
“Huge efforts were exerted … to remove the threat of development and convey the property into public ownership,” the group said in a letter signed by chairman Tom Williams. “The proposed project is contrary to every agency, Elkhorn Working Group, and public management goal for this special area. On these bases, The Elkhorn Working Group strenuously opposes the Iron Mask Pumped Storage Project.”
Matthew Shapiro, chief executive officer of Gridflex Energy in Boise, said he understands the concerns and this is only one of a few sites across the West to possibly install the project. The plan calls for generating power that would be sent to the Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) line that is currently being evaluated, to fill in the line when wind power isn’t available.
“There are some environmental sensitivities that we’ll have to consider as we evaluate whether to move forward on that site,” Shapiro said on Thursday. “In some respects this is a fantastic location for the project, but if it’s too sensitive of an area, it’s not worth the impact that you would make.”
The proposed project would consist of a 225-foot-high, 1,795-foot long upper dam made of either earth and rocks or concrete; and a 40-foot-high, 6,559-foot-long lower embankment made of earth or rocks. Both reservoirs would have storage capacities of 4,888 acre-feet. The project would also consist of three underground tunnels and a 260-foot-long, 65-foot-wide, 120-foot-high underground powerhouse, located at a depth of 1,000 feet.
Shapiro said they would partially fill the reservoirs with water from the nearby Canyon Ferry Reservoir. When power is needed, they would run water from the upper reservoir through the pump house and into the lower reservoir, then transmit up to 300 megawatts through a single-circuit 230-kilovolt, 4.9-mile-long transmission line to a NorthWestern Energy substation being proposed for land south of Townsend.
The water is pumped back to the upper reservoir, possibly at night when electricity rates are lowest, but neither reservoir would ever be completely drained, he added, and drawing water from Canyon Ferry would be a one-time need.
“This is used all over the world; there’s 40 such projects operating in the United States,” Shapiro said. “It’s a proven technology.”
He said Gridflex hasn’t built any of these projects before, but the company is pursuing 12 around the country.
“Nobody has built any in the past 20 years, and no independent companies have built any before; it’s all been utilities,” Shapiro said.
Tom Carlsen, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the state agency has “serious concerns regarding negative impacts to wildlife should this proposed project move beyond the feasibility study.”
He wrote in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that since 1992, state, federal and local agencies have focused their efforts on the reintroduction of bighorn sheep, a comprehensive travel plan, improved livestock management, cutthroat trout conservation and reclaiming abandoned mines, as well as a variety of other projects in the Elkhorns. One of the major accomplishments was the purchase of the Iron Mask property, which is home to bighorn sheep, deer, antelope and elk and important wintering grounds.
“Having an energy producing facility, as being proposed, in the middle of this critical winter range is not consistent with current management and would likely result in displacement of these big game animals from preferred habitat,” Carlsen wrote. “There is no vacant habitat for these animals to move to, which is why the Iron Mask acquisition was so important as well as maintaining the current management direction.”
He added that immediately south of the pumping station is the 5,000 acre Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area, home to about 2,000 nesting American white pelicans, 600 double crested cormorants and many other species of nongame birds.
“Disturbance to these nesting birds by activities associated with this project along with the potential for collisions with a new powerline could have serious negative impacts on birds using the CFWMA,” he wrote. “… It is the Department’s conclusion that such a facility would be detrimental to wildlife in the area and is not consistent with current management direction set forth by the agencies managing public resources in this area.”
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