Excessive rutting caused by vehicles, disturbance of a Native American archaeological site and placing poles too far from fence lines has occurred during construction of the Montana Alberta Tie Line, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
In a Nov. 22 letter to line developer Tonbridge Power Inc. CEO Johan van’t Hof, DEQ Director Richard Opper said the “initiation of construction of the MATL line has not gone well.”
Tonbridge, he wrote, already violated provisions of its certificate of compliance relating to excessive rutting and protection of cultural resources.
Opper writes that he has decided not to seek civil penalties at this time based, in part, on the fact that Tonbridge has responded to the issues the department raised.
“It is, however, very early in the process to have used up so much of your grace period,” Opper wrote van’t Hof.
In a Dec. 3 reply to the state, Tonbridge disagreed with how the DEQ characterized the project’s progress. The company also said the ruts that were made, while regrettable, didn’t rise to the level of permit violations. Additionally, it described the DEQ’s interpretation of where poles could be placed as “strict.”
However, van’t Hof said the company accepted responsibility for the errors. He also said Tonbridge has ordered reviews of procedures to address the concerns.
“We need a zero failure rate and we’re continuing to insist and strive toward that,” van’t Hof said in an interview.
Opper said the state’s weekly inspections of construction will continue because the problems were “beyond the normal glitches.”
Poles started going up in August between south of Cut Bank and the Canadian border as part of the $215 million line from Great Falls to Lethbridge. Issues with rutting and the archeological site occurred along this stretch. The line is scheduled for completion next year and is expected to spur the construction of wind farms.
Construction on the second phase of the project, from Cut Bank to Great Falls, hasn’t started. There are some concerns about pole placement along the southern stretch of the project.
In an interview Thursday, Opper said he was frustrated by the early errors but still supports the project.
“They are just on notice they are going to have to be very vigilant not to make those mistakes,” Opper said.
According to the DEQ’s letter, a department official observed excessive rutting along the route of several poles during inspections in September and October. In one instance, a large crane was stuck so deep in wet soil that a backhoe was needed to extricate it, which disturbed a large area of ground.
The issue of wetland protection has dominated discussions between the DEQ and Tonbridge over the past few months, Opper noted. In light of that, he wrote that, “I would have expected you to ensure your construction crew avoided wet soils at all costs, regardless of whether they were officially designated as wetlands.”
The contractor has been told that more hardwood mats need to be put down during construction activities, van’t Hof said.
van’t Hof described the rutting as isolated and caused by higher than average rainfall. He also said the permit lacks a clear definition of “severe” rutting and disputed that the ruts constituted a permit violation.
In another instance, a DEQ inspector observed tire tracks over a rock in a teepee ring area at what’s known as the Fitzpatrick Lake Site. Additionally, tribal and cultural resource officials were not notified in advance of construction in the area, and the site was not listed in “alignment sheets,” state said.
The area had been marked with stakes, but Tonbridge officials said cattle knocked them over.
Tonbridge officials said the disturbance of the archaeological site was a “serious error.” van‘t Hof said that future sites will be reviewed again to ensure they are properly noted on the construction alignment sheets and stakes will be placed a week before construction to reduce the risk of them being knocked down.
In the final issue raised, the DEQ said landowners along the south end of the route said the company is negotiating easements that would place some poles inside field boundaries – in cropland – instead of along the boundaries outside of the cropland.
Opper said no violation had occurred in this area, but the DEQ put Tonbridge on notice that in most cases it would consider placement of poles well inside field boundaries as violations.
“I also think it contradicts your stated desire to be a good neighbor to the affected landowners,” Opper wrote.
van’t Hof said that poles are placed on the field boundaries where reasonable. But noted that isn’t always possible, citing the example of a wetland being located on a boundary.
The company has ordered a “pole-by-pole review” of a 95-mile stretch between Cut Bank and Great Falls in response to the concerns about pole placement, he said.
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