Construction has resumed on the northern portion of an embattled power transmission line, and the developer says it has reached easement agreements with landowners that are necessary to complete the southern portion of the project.
Two eminent domain trials associated with the Montana Alberta Tie Line between Great Falls and Lethbridge – scheduled to be heard earlier this week in Cascade and Teton counties – were canceled.
Harley Harris, senior legal counsel for MATL LLP, a subsidiary of Calgary-based developer Enbridge, said judges in both counties vacated the trials after agreements were reached between the company and landowners near Dutton, Power and Conrad.
The agreements resolve outstanding issues, including pole location and construction practices, with landowners agreeing to convey easements needed to complete the line, he said.
“The fact we can turn our attention to building a line, as opposed to litigating it, has to be seen by everybody as a positive development,” Harris said.
The line, billed as a $1 billion investment in renewable energy infrastructure, including spin-off wind farms, had been stalled as landowners and the former project owner, Tonbridge Power Inc., tangled over eminent domain and the location of the poles.
NaturEner USA of San Francisco, which will use the line, currently is gearing up to begin construction of a $430 million wind farm on the Kevin Rim in Glacier and Toole counties.
Harris said the goal of Enbridge is to complete the line by the end of the year.
The Teton County court has set aside one date, April 24, in the event MATL is not able to reach a final settlement agreement with all of the landowners, but Harris said he is confident the remaining details of the agreement will fall into place soon.
Hertha Lund , an attorney for the landowners, said the company is working hard to resolve past problems.
“We may be resolving our differences,” she said.
Lund represents about 40 clients. Some of the land involved in the dispute involves family members and is owned by more than one person.
The landowners have agreed to convey easements either to Enbridge or the Western Area Power Administration, Harris said.
WAPA, which issued a $161 million loan to construct the line, has an ownership interest in it.
Tonbridge, which launched the project, ran out of money and was criticized for its management by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General after it went $70 million over budget.
The line was sold in August to Enbridge, and construction resumed earlier this spring, said Tom Ring of the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The DEQ is now taking public comments on a proposed amendment by Enbridge for two minor adjustments in the line near Great Falls and Conrad,” he said. “It appears they are working things out, assuming they keep on the heading we’ve been told about.”
Construction is occurring south of the Marias River, with work proceeding south, Ring said.
He added that he has been impressed with the quality of work.
“They are not disturbing any more than they absolutely need to,” he said.
Res-America is the new contractor for the project, Harris said.
He added that the proposed changes in the line’s course are the result of negotiations with landowners. The company plans to apply for additional changes to accommodate landowners, he said.
The project was launched in response to demand from wind developers for additional transmission lines. It eventually sparked an argument over whether a power line to ship electricity out of state was a public use, and whether the line’s developer and operator had the right to use eminent domain to secure land to site poles for the line.
The state Supreme Court ruled that the use of eminent domain for the project was allowed, and the state Legislature passed a new law specifically saying merchant line developers had the right to eminent domain.
However, individual condemnation cases still remained unresolved in Cascade and Teton counties before District Judge Tom McKittrick of Cascade County and District Judge Nels Swandal of Teton County canceled the trials.
The judges previously ordered the sides to mediate. Former Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier was the mediator.
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