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Dutton farmers worried about power line easement impact

A proposed power line that would provide transmission capacity to four wind-generation projects between Lethbridge, Alta., and Great Falls fails to consider the long-term impacts on farmers

Fifteen farmers met in Dutton last week to discuss their concerns about a Calgary, Alta.-based company's project to develop a "merchant" (privately-funded) 203-mile-long transmission line across their properties.

The Montana Alberta Tie Ltd.'s power line would be capable of moving 300 megawatts of power in either direction on a 230-kilovolt transmission line run, for the most part, on 65-foot-tall H-frame structures made from steel poles. The proposal is to run the line as much as possible parallel to the existing NorthWestern Energy 115-kv transmission line right-of-way through central Pondera County, eastern Teton County and northern Cascade County from Conrad to the NWE substation at Rainbow Dam in Great Falls.

Since the project was announced at public meetings in June 2005, the press coverage of the MATL line has been positive, and the farmers' concerns have gone unaddressed, they say.

State Sen. Jerry Black, (R-Shelby,) who attended the Dutton meeting said that the MATL line would make possible wind-generation projects that would add $29 million in tax revenues in Glacier and Toole counties over 20 years. "This is very important to the development of northern Montana," Black said.

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Fifteen farmers met in Dutton last week to discuss their concerns about a Calgary, Alta.-based company's project to develop a "merchant" (privately-funded) 203-mile-long transmission line across their properties.

The Montana Alberta Tie Ltd.'s power line would be capable of moving 300 megawatts of power in either direction on a 230-kilovolt transmission line run, for the most part, on 65-foot-tall H-frame structures made from steel poles. The proposal is to run the line as much as possible parallel to the existing NorthWestern Energy 115-kv transmission line right-of-way through central Pondera County, eastern Teton County and northern Cascade County from Conrad to the NWE substation at Rainbow Dam in Great Falls.

Since the project was announced at public meetings in June 2005, the press coverage of the MATL line has been positive, and the farmers' concerns have gone unaddressed, they say.

State Sen. Jerry Black, (R-Shelby,) who attended the Dutton meeting said that the MATL line would make possible wind-generation projects that would add $29 million in tax revenues in Glacier and Toole counties over 20 years. "This is very important to the development of northern Montana," Black said.

The revenues would reduce property taxes and not bring additional money for the counties to spend on existing needs, according to a fiscal-impact study prepared for the Toole County commissioners.

The farmers told Black that they are not against economic development. Instead, they want MATL to consider how modern dryland farming techniques are affected by power lines in the middle of fields. They want MATL to minimize the disruption in fields by installing single poles, not double-poled H-frames, along north-south and east-west field boundary (section) lines instead of diagonally across fields.

They said the offers made for the 105-foot corridor (45 feet right of way plus 30-foot "safety" zones on either side) are too little money when one considers the long-term impact on their agricultural operations.

The MATL line, estimated to cost $100 million, would be the United States' first power transmission interconnection with Alberta. In December 2005, the company submitted a 179-page application to obtain a certificate of compliance under Montana's Major Facility Siting Act from the state Department of Environmental Quality. MATL stated that the line would facilitate development of additional sources of generation, improve transmission-system reliability, promote increased trade in electrical energy and provide a transmission route to balance energy surplus/shortage situations in an efficient and economic manner.

That's all well and good, say the farmers who gathered in Dutton last week, but they want MATL and DEQ to take into account that the landowners along the right of way are really financing the project.

Dutton area farmer Ray Habel said the picture MATL portrays has been rosy, but its line is not such a good design.

Getting a right-of-way is MATL's way of making money on someone else's land, Habel said, and it should be done so that the farmers get a fair shake, not only in placement but in efficiency. He said no one is looking at the placement of the line so that it helps the farmers, or that it has the proper capacity to serve the needs of the region. He said the 230-kv line is a "little matchstick," when what is needed is a good-sized line that would take care of the region for 50 years.

MATL official Jan van Egteren said the power line would have a capacity of 600 megawatts, 300 mw in each direction. Officials for a Great Plains Wind & Energy Inc. proposed wind farm in Glacier and Toole counties have contracted for 120 mw northbound and GE Energy in Alberta has contracted for 175 mw southbound. Van Egteren said Invenergy Wind Montana L.L.C. is among the companies vying for the remainder of the capacity, 180 mw northbound and 125 mw southbound. The latter company developed the wind farm at Judith Gap.

MATL will hold a capacity auction until June 12 to give competing companies an opportunity to bid on the remainder of the capacity. Great Plains Managing Partner David Dumon said his company plans to bid on the additional megawatts going northbound because he wants to built more wind farms. Once the capacity is sold, no other projects could tap into the power line.

In a follow-up interview, MATL Vice President Bob Williams addressed questions about putting in a 500-kv line, one that would be better for economic development. Williams said MATL is delighted to see the response from the marketplace, that the entire capacity has been requested. He said the marketplace has vindicated the reports that showed a pent-up demand for transmission capacity.

Still, that does not mean supporting a 500-kv line, Williams said. MATL cannot make a leap of faith. The company needs to build a line that is fully utilized, he said. Besides, the power must be transported and sold to power-utility companies in the region that also have competing bidders.

Dutton area farmer Chris Stephens said he is concerned that the company is pushing ahead to get easements, but is ahead of itself as far as the process is concerned.

Stephens said no one is addressing the continuing cost to farm after the line is constructed. An H-frame structure takes up 75 square feet and wherever an angle occurs, guy wires are necessary.

A transmission line is a valuable asset to the company, but it is a hindrance to the landowner. It precludes productive use of the land or interferes with land uses that could bring economic gain to the landowner. Transmission lines restrict aerial spraying of a field and spraying costs may be increased while the effectiveness of the pesticide or herbicide coverage is lessened, he said.

The landowner would be compensated to some extent for these economic losses by the purchase of the right-of-way easement and the annual pole fee MATL proposes.

Stephens said the continuing interference with cultivation would be lessened if MATL would build along section lines and use single poles. He said hitting the pole is a big concern because of high repair costs for the farming equipment that use GPS guidance technology. He said the poles prohibit him from using chemicals properly.

Stephens said he is concerned that the proposed right-of-way changes almost daily and that the company refuses to name farmers who have signed easements. He said he has heard agents are offering different easements to neighboring landowners. If one farmer shows reluctance to discuss the matter because DEQ has not approved MATL's application yet, the right-of-way agent has sought out the next neighbor to ask about an easement, making everyone upset that no one knows what is going on.

"They are using 'divide and conquer' tactics," Stephens said. "They need to set the route," he said.

He added that the easement documents are poorly written and everyone should understand that MATL is also getting a fiber-optic easement from each landowner along with the power line right-of-way.

Stephens said a discussion should occur about preventing diagonal lines that do not fit land-use patterns on today's dryland farms.

DEQ has hired an engineering firm to do an environmental analysis and review to be paid for by MATL. DEQ has nine months to issue or deny the certificate of compliance after the review. Stephens said at the Dutton meeting that it was important to provide comments to DEQ now and during the public-comment period regarding their concerns that the proposed power line is not the best designed and that its impacts are not being considered.

He said the Western Area Power Administration line running due north-south in a corridor west of Dutton was supposed to be diagonal and it was changed for the sake of the farmers. In addition, Sun River Electric Cooperative has always built along roads to minimize the impact on cultivation. If the farmers accept the MATL line, single poles, not H-frames, should be used, Stephens said.

Another farmer at the meeting said he was concerned that having two power lines side-by-side would invite more. "Pretty soon it will be a half mile wide," he said.

Stephens voiced a concern that the company is proposing to raise shipping rates annually yet the farmers are not given the same right to raise their pole fees for increased weed-control costs. "This company is far ahead of itself. Their easement is a joke," he said.

"DEQ is starting to get the idea. True farming costs are not being computed. Dryland agriculture has to be considered, not just the spotted vole or tipi rings," he said.

Farmer Jerry McRae said he has already received a second certified letter requesting him to discuss an easement. If he refuses, he opens himself up to an action for eminent domain once DEQ okays the MATL project, he said. Once awarded a certificate, MATL has 36 months to complete its project.

Company literature states that the line would be completed in January 2007.

"It's a one-time expense for them, it's forever for us," said another farmer.

At the meeting, McRae asked Black to say he supports single poles on straight-line rights-of-way, but Black said he cannot take a position on that. He said he supports the farmers' right to negotiate and to work out the issues with MATL. "The line could end in Toole County," he quipped.

East Conrad farmer Pat Laisnez said his 87-year-old landlord got a phone call at 9:30 at night from an agent who wanted to talk about an easement. Laisnez said the agent threatened eminent domain. "I don't care for a company that calls an 87-year-old woman at night," he said.

In a follow-up interview, Pat Compton, who operates Compton Signatures of Browning, said she was surprised that negative comments had been voiced about the work to get easements. She has a contract to obtain the right-of-way agreements for MATL.

"I thought we were working very well with the farmers," she said.

Compton explained that the preferred route was on the diagonal parallel to the NWE line. "The farmers want to use section lines and we understand that. We cannot just change the line totally. We mitigate as much as possible to put the least impact on farmers," she said.

If people ask, she said, she tells them that MATL, through proceedings in district court, has the right to condemn the land. "It is legal, but it is something they do not want to do," Compton said.

Her job is to purchase the easements, but there are always people who don't want it to happen, she said. Most people say "yes," others say "not on our land."

She said farmers could cultivate around the poles, although it is not easy to do so.

Compton said she wants the landowners to have all the information in front of them during face-to-face meetings. "If you never meet, you cannot form an opinion," she said.

She was an advocate for the power line. MATL saw the need, she said, and it took the initiative to do the project. She said northern Montana has wind but does not have the transmission lines to develop wind-energy projects.

She listed the offers she is able to make in obtaining easements: for each pole, $20 per pole per year on grassland, $40 on dryland or $50 with a guy wire. The rates are $50 per pole per year on irrigated land and $60 with guy wire. At 10-year intervals, a cost of living increase is added. An H-frame has two poles.

Compton said that normally easements are obtained with just a lump sum, but MATL is offering an annual fee. This will set a precedent, she said.

"I believe in it. I see the benefits," she said.

As to the purported unwillingness of the company to compromise, Compton said part of the line was already moved when MATL discovered the presence of a small airstrip. "We can't just move it at will, we need a specific reason," she said.

For example, the MATL engineer has determined that the preferred route over the Teton River has to be changed.

Compton said the MATL line is not federally funded and it dos not have to be completely engineered years ahead. "We can't make everybody happy. I need to give as much information as possible so the landowners make an educated decision. The fiscal impact of the line is significant," Compton said.

Cascade County farmer John Sheffels put his concerns on record in December with a letter to DEQ Facility Site Program Manager Tom Ring. Sheffels said that power lines lead to decreased efficiency of field operations, increased weed pressure, pose a safety risk and reduce property values. He uses GPS for machinery and is concerned about signal interference caused by lines.

He questioned the lack of long-term planning in how the lines are built and listed a host of other concerns about the proposed line and MATL, as a company. He said he already has two high-voltage lines crossing his property and the MATL line would be a third. He told the farmers that he believes MATL has obtained very few easements between Conrad and Great Falls.

Habel said he already has two or three power lines running across his fields. When a couple of lines failed, the cross arms caught on fire and burned the grass underneath. He was unsuccessful in getting any reimbursement for the grass and for the damage to the river bottom, he said.

The proposed power line as of Jan. 10, would cross 11 parcels of state land, said Conrad-based State Lands Manager Eric Eneboe, who is employed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He said an environmental review is necessary before the state can discuss easements, but his agency filed comments with DEQ regarding the line.

DNRC recommended that poles not be located in the middle of irrigated crops and using property boundaries and or section lines where possible to minimize segmentation of land ownership and unusable corridors.

Williams discussed the farmers' concerns in an interview last week. He said one of DEQ's siting criteria is to construct new lines next to existing ones. He said MATL has been able to successfully negotiate land easements on that basis.

If landowners sit down and discuss their unique concerns, he said, the results would be good. The company is committed to being a good neighbor and to coming up with the best possible solutions to address the impact and minimize the effect of the lines on land use.

When asked about easement tactics and reports of threats to landowners, Williams said MATL is not taking any short cuts, it is not that kind of company. He said MATL has the highest ethical standards. and would not use coercion.

Williams said there have been a relatively small number of landowners, who don't want to speak to the agents. He said the company wants to break through that unwillingness.

When asked why MATL cannot piggyback onto the WAPA or the NWE lines, Williams said the lower voltage, 115-kv NWE line has only one quarter of the capacity to move the volume of power MATL wants to move.

He said MATL looked into WAPA early. "We found their tariff structure for wheeling power through them was not economic. No shippers would be willing to bid for it," he said, adding that MATL could only be successful if it fielded an offer to the marketplace that is competitive.

Williams answered questions about concern that the new power line would open door for more corridors. He said the easement agreement that the agents are presenting is only for one power line, but it includes the right to install a fiber-optic cable as a overhead shield wire, that is necessary for the operation and protection of power line. The easement agreements include the option to install additional fiber-optic cables. "We are considering that," Williams said.

He added that the commercial agreements are confidential. "I prefer not to get into those matters," he said.

Williams said he understands the issue about using single or double poles but single pole structures are more expensive to install. When they are used, there is a tradeoff in that the maximum distance or span length is shorter with single poles - 800 feet for an H-frame verses 500 feet for a single pole, on average.

According to Williams, the main factor in pole use is land use. Typically, single poles are used when fields have center pivots, or wheel-line irrigation systems. The single pole has a narrower right-of-way. The use of either single poles or H-frames and their location would be part of the consultation with each landowner, he said.

Williams said DEQ requires MATL to propose a preferred and two alternative routes. The company has made several route changes that make the maps presented at scoping meetings out of date.

"We do work with landowners, the [revised maps] are evidence we do what we say. At some point, you have to get closure on the right of way. I am very confident we will get options for all the right of way in both countries. We hope to negotiate with each landowner. We just need a bit of time to sit down and work out a solution. I am confident we will come up with a solution everyone can live with," Williams said.

The company Web site is, www.matl.ca, and the telephone number is 403-264-4465.

He said MATL wants to build the line in a reasonable length of time and the company has made a commitment to its shippers. "We will live up to it," he said, adding that he is confident MATL will satisfy all of DEQ's requirements.

Dumon said MATL is Great Plains' first option in providing the line for its wind-generation project, but it is not its only option. "We favor them. We want to export green power out of Montana. Canada is a better market. It's a wonderful electricity market. There's no demand in Montana. We have no concerns that MATL will not meet their goal," Dumon said.

Stephens said he was willing to keep landowners informed about the right-of-way issues and asked everyone to gather information about their concerns and issues. He can be reached at 406-463-2433 or 406-788-0498.



Source: http://www.choteauacantha.c...

JUN 9 2006
https://www.windaction.org/posts/2981-dutton-farmers-worried-about-power-line-easement-impact
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