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MATL spokesman says eminent domain ruling is wrong

LETHBRIDGE – Officials are confident work will proceed on the Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. electricity transmission line – both north and south of the border – despite a Montana court decision limiting right of entry to private lands.

Rob McFarland, a spokesman for the parent company of MATL, Tonbridge Power Inc., said Thursday that he believes the political might of Montana’s legislators, the governor’s office and the efforts of all concerned utilities will help reverse the decision.

A Montana District Court judge ruled Monday that the company had no authority without an agreement to gain right of entry to Montana private lands for its massive transmission line between Lethbridge and Great Falls.

McFarland said Thursday that Judge Laurie McKinnon’s ruling, based on the right of eminent domain, was wrong.

Eminent domain was a major part of the company’s 1,000-page Environmental Impact Statement and application for the $209-million power line, he said. The EIS gained the blessing of every state and federal regulator involved in the power line process.

McFarland is confident a “patch” on the court ruling will be secured by March. This week’s court decision will have no impact on keeping the MATL line on schedule, he said. He noted that the line is vital to meeting the north-south movement of electricity from green power producers such as wind farms.

“The state can’t continue to operate without a patch,” McFarland said, suggesting the ruling will stall all future utility development in Montana. “MATL is very important for Montana.”

Tony Bos, a farmer in the Coaldale area east of Lethbridge, where the MATL line will pass through an irrigated field, cheered the Montana court decision.

“It seems at least the U.S. system looks after landowners more,” he said. “There seems like a big difference (from Alberta) with landowner rights.

“Here the landowners get nothing and everything is bulldozed over,” he added. “Landowners seem to have some rights in the U.S.”

Daryl Bennett of Taber, also east of Lethbridge, a senior official with Action Rights Surface Rights Association, said he has no doubts MATL will try to use its influence to help overturn the decision. However, he added that more challenges are likely with 20 other landowners working with the same legal firm that won the Monday decision.

He said he believes the Montana Legislature will likely pass a new law allowing MATL access to private lands.

Bob Williams of Calgary, a former MATL vice president who continues to consult with the company, said everyone was surprised and “incredibly” disappointed in the Montana court ruling.

“We are confident we exceeded all legal requirements,” Williams said. “We met all eminent domain exercises.”

The system in Montana is similar to Alberta. If a utility can’t reach agreement for access and compensation, it can seek intervention. In Alberta, that comes through an application to the Alberta Surface Rights and Compensation Board.

Williams said that when a utility can’t meet public interest requirements, it must fall back on eminent domain as a last resort.

McFarland said MATL will meet a public need, but it is difficult to get 100 percent support for a long, linear project. The line would stretch about 215 miles from a substation northeast of Lethbridge to Great Falls.

He said the company will continue to negotiate with the son of a Montana landowner who took the company to court to preserve a wetlands and Native American tepee rings.

“We want to have satisfied customers,” McFarland said. “We’re trying to work with all groups on the land to make the transmission line more appealing.”