The Montana Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a lower court’s ruling that a state agency didn’t adequately consult with Jefferson County while reviewing a proposed major power transmission line project.
In its decision, the court reversed district Judge Loren Tucker’s September 2010 ruling and said the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, had not violated its legal duty to consult with Jefferson County.
Prior to the lawsuit with Jefferson County, the DEQ had been preparing to release a draft environmental impact statement for NorthWestern Energy’s proposed 500-kV Mountain States Transmission Intertie, or MSTI.
Judge Tucker ruled in favor of Jefferson County’s claim that it hadn’t been adequately consulted in developing the document and further enjoined the state from releasing its impact statement until that had been satisfied.
The DEQ appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, which found that state law requires the agency to develop the EIS and consult with Jefferson County before releasing a detailed statement.
The agency is not mandated, however, to consult with the county throughout its development of the EIS.
“The record reflects DEQ already has expended considerable effort to include Jefferson County in the environmental review process,” the ruling states.
The court concluded that DEQ’s legal obligations in the environmental review process have not ended and that Jefferson County would have “adequate legal remedies” after the agency releases its EIS.
The court questioned the timing of Jefferson County’s lawsuit, calling it “premature.”
It added that the DEQ has said Jefferson County will have a continuing opportunity to consult with the agency on its proposed action after a draft EIS is released.
Claudia Rapkoch, NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman, said the utility is pleased with the court’s decision.
“It validates what we’ve thought all along,” she said. “I think when you read through the decision it clearly states that NorthWestern has done a significant amount of communication about the project and we continue to.”
Rapkoch said lines of communication will remain open with Jefferson County and all other entities involved in the process.
“We remain committed to a robust public process that includes all stakeholders,” she said.
Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Lythgoe said he’s “very disappointed” with the ruling, which he described as “shocking.”
He questioned whether the Supreme Court fully understood Judge Tucker’s decision requiring the state to more broadly consult with Jefferson County while reviewing the MSTI project.
The county wanted a consultation role throughout the process, “not just at the beginning and the end,” Lythgoe said.
At the same time, he said that since the lawsuit both NorthWestern Energy and the Bureau of Land Management have improved communication with Jefferson County.
“We have made significant progress as far as them seeing our point of view,” Lythgoe said. “We’ve felt like we’ve been heard.”
On the other hand, Lythgoe says Jefferson County shouldn’t have to file a lawsuit before its concerns are considered.
With the lawsuit over, he’s hopeful the DEQ will begin working with Jefferson County as well.
“Our hope is that they will come to the table like NorthWestern has done and the BLM has done,” Lythgoe said.
NorthWestern’s 500-kV line is proposed to supply power to out-of-state markets and would run from near Townsend to just north of Jerome, Idaho.
The line has been highly controversial, with some landowners saying it would come at their expense through loss of property value to benefit NorthWestern Energy.
The utility says the $1 billion line would carry primarily renewable electric generated in Montana to help customers fulfill new energy demand and renewable portfolio standards adopted by western states.
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