A proposal by Sioux City, S.D., energy company Northwestern Energy could route a major 500-kilovolt power transmission line through Blaine County. Two routes being considered, shown on the map above as Proposed Line A and Proposed Line B, led to intense emotions at a meeting in Carey this week. Express graphic by Gavin McNeil
Proponents of a proposal to locate a massive power transmission line through southern Blaine County faced an avalanche of criticism Tuesday night when they presented the plan to a standing-room-only crowd in the Carey High School gymnasium.
Energy giant Northwestern Energy, based in Sioux City, S.D., would like to build a 500-kilovolt line through southwestern Montana and southeastern Idaho, portions of which may or may not pass through Blaine County depending on the route chosen.
For a little more than two hours, a hostile crowd directed a barrage of concerns and angry remarks toward two representatives of the plan who traveled to the rural community to host the open house. Judging by their response to the crowd, the two men apparently were not expecting the intense emotions their proposal elicited.
But it didn't take long for them to discover the lack of support for the plan in Carey.
"We're getting the picture," said Jim Jensen, environmental planner with Power Engineers in Boise. The large engineering firm, which has offices in Hailey, is a consultant for Northwestern Energy on the proposed $800 million project, called the Mountain States Transmission Intertie.
Locally, possible routes identified by Northwestern Energy for the 350- to 390-mile-long line include two alternative paths between the Idaho National Laboratory near Arco and Shoshone.
One of the proposed routes would cross the high-desert, sagebrush lands to the east and south of the 750,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. That section would see 20 to 25 miles of line pass through a narrow southern extension of Blaine County, well south of Carey.
The other possible route, and the one responsible for the heated criticisms Tuesday, would hug the monument's northwest boundary between Arco and Carey. From Carey, the transmission line would head southwest along U.S. Highway 26 to Shoshone. That section would see 30 to 35 miles of power line pass through Blaine County.
Under the energy company's proposal, the line would be constructed with a combination of 110- to 130-foot-tall, lattice steel towers separated by an average distance of 1,500 feet. An approximately 220-feet-wide right-of-way across public and private lands would be required.
And therein lay the beef Carey residents had.
Repeatedly throughout the meeting, different speakers asked Jensen and Tom Pankratz, Northwestern Energy's project manager for the Mountain States Transmission Intertie, what the company would do should it come up against private landowners unwilling to sell their land to allow the line to pass through. They asked whether the private company could use eminent domain to condemn private land if landowners were unwilling to sell. But just as many times as the crowd asked the question, the Jensen and Pankratz said they didn't know. They said the answer to that question would have to be addressed by someone with more knowledge of Idaho law.
"I'm telling you I personally don't know the answer to that question," Pankratz told the crowd.
On hand during the meeting were Blaine County Commissioners Tom Bowman and Larry Schoen. At several times during the meeting, Schoen appeared fed up with what he characterized as evasiveness on the part of Jensen and Pankratz, especially in relation to the eminent domain question.
"I don't find it credible that you don't know the answer," he said. "I do have some concerns in how you are answering questions tonight."
Schoen added that property owners in Carey want to know what the future holds for their land, most of which is used for agricultural purposes.
"This is what people want to hear," he said. "This shouldn't be a surprise to you."
In an interview since the meeting, County Administrator Mike McNees said he is researching the eminent domain question.
While no date has been set, Jensen and Pankratz seemed amenable to being present for another meeting in Carey sometime in the next few months.
Schoen asked that they have an answer regarding the eminent domain question in time for the next meeting.
Ketchum resident Barry Luboviski cited the high regard county residents have for the picturesque landscape they call home as a reason why Northwestern Energy shouldn't consider running the line through the area.
"I would think the last county you would want to run through is Blaine County," Luboviski said.
Echoing those remarks was Mike Stevens, president of Lava Lake Land and Livestock, whose ranch is northeast of Carey alongside the proposed Arco-to-Carey route.
"I think you are going to avoid this area and I don't think you know it yet," Stevens said.
During a meeting in October before the Blaine County Commission, Pankratz said Northwestern Energy would like to begin construction on the project in 2010 and complete it in 2013.
However, prior to that happening, the project will have to go through an intense round of federal environmental assessments, which would consider the impacts on alternative routes over public land, as well as gain approval from state and county agencies.
Documents provided by Northwestern Energy state that the primary purpose of the proposed transmission line would be to meet requests by energy companies for additional transmission capability and relieve constraints on the high-voltage transmission system in the region. Company representatives contend that growth has created a significant need for improved power transmission between southwestern Montana and southeastern Idaho.
Another reason new transmission lines are needed is to serve the growing green energy market, Jensen said.
"We have got to expand the infrastructure in the country," he said. "There aren't adequate lines going to where the renewables are going to be developed."
The proposed power line would likely begin in Townsend, Mont., and end near the Idaho Power Co.'s Midpoint Substation in Shoshone or at the company's Borah Substation in American Falls.
A decision to end at the Borah Substation would mean the line wouldn't have to pass through any of Blaine County. That decision will be made in the next six to eight months, Pankratz said.