Several Butte-Silver Bow commissioners refused to complete a 12-page survey Thursday, saying they’ve already taken a stand on a proposed major power transmission line.
Commissioners said the local governing body has twice gone on record in support of placing NorthWestern Energy’s proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie, or MSTI, on public land.
“I think this survey would skew that no matter how you look at it and they could use it against us later,” council Chairman Dave Palmer said.
Commissioners from the five Montana counties that could be impacted by the line were invited to Butte Thursday for a mapping workshop organized by the MSTI Review Project, an independent group conducting a third-party review of the project.
The workshop was an opportunity for commissioners in the region to share constituent views on the potential corridors for the line.
The vocal Butte contingency sat at the front of the conference at the Quality Inn, raising concerns about the mapping process.
Commissioners Palmer, Ristene Hall, Cindi Shaw and Dennis Henderson wrote a note at the top of each of their surveys explaining the decision not to participate in the mapping process.
The surveys asked commissioners to put values to things like scenic views and land ownership and weigh them against other themes when considering the impacts of a transmission line.
For instance, commissioners were asked to determine on a weighted scale which they feel more strongly about: land ownership or scenic views.
Another portion of the survey asked commissioners to assign a numerical weight (1 through 9) to a range of “features” with the most weight to areas that should be most protected from the line such as property with more than 40 acres per house, conservation easements, residential areas, agriculture, fishing, hunting, downtown/city centers, public and private land and historic areas.
Commissioner Shaw had no issues with the group’s effort, but wasn’t comfortable answering the questions. Council’s only stance, she said, is that the line should be placed on public land.
“We made a commitment to only approve putting the transmission line on public land,” she said. “The only important thing to us is that it doesn’t go on private land.”
Commissioners Bill Andersen, Bud Walker and Sheryl Ralph completed their surveys and said they provided answers that reflect the city-county’s stance on the issue.
“I want them to know what we feel strongly about, know what our thoughts are and how it should be handled,” Walker said.
Both Walker and Ralph said they gave the most consideration to private property, historic districts, recreation areas and wetlands.
The MSTI review project will use data gathered from the surveys to develop a “community values map” showing potential routes for the line with the least impact. Separate wildlife and engineering maps also are being developed.
None of the routes identified by the review project would place the line 100 percent on public land, as there are no contiguous tracts of public land stretching from Townsend to Jerome, Idaho, where the estimated 430-mile line would be constructed.
Still, the community values map would help local leaders and other groups make an argument for a corridor with the least impact.
The community values map may be submitted for review and consideration as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality review the project and develop an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS.
The agencies plan to release a draft EIS later this year, as well as a preferred route, but are under no obligation to adopt any of the maps or routes identified as part of the MSTI Review Project, said Tim Bozorth, BLM field manager.
However, the comments gathered during the EIS process carry “significant weight” in the decision-making process, he said.
And those representing potentially impacted counties are hoping the MSTI Review Project – which plans to release its findings in late May – will strengthen planning outcomes through diverse input.
“I want to make sure we have the biggest footprint we can” during the decision-making process, said Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel.
About 20 Idaho commissioners representing eight of 10 counties potentially impacted by MSTI participated in a Wednesday workshop in Pocatello, said Monique DiGiorgio, MSTI Mapping Project coordinator.
Commissioners from four of the five potentially impacted Montana counties — Butte-Silver Bow, Anaconda-Deerlodge, Madison and Jefferson — attended Thursday’s workshop.
No commissioners from Broadwater County attended the event.
NorthWestern Energy is proposing the 500-kilovolt MSTI transmission line to carry power generated primarily from renewable generating facilities in Montana to bolster the western grid.
The utility and the Bonneville Power Administration, BPA, are exploring possible collaboration on the MSTI project.
The line may be an option for BPA to serve customers in Idaho, western Wyoming and Montana and provide other operational benefits.
NorthWestern hopes to energize the line in 2016.
For more information about the MSTI project visit www.msti500kv.com or visit mstireviewproject.org for details about the MSTI Review Project.
— Reporter Justin Post may be reached at Justin.firstname.lastname@example.org or (406)496-5572. Follow him at Twitter.com/@MT_JustinPost.