NorthWestern Energy’s plans to build a gas pipeline under the Yellowstone River were allowed to go ahead on Tuesday after Yellowstone County commissioners voted to reject an appeal against the project.
The appeal was filed last month by residents who live along the south bank of the Yellowstone River near Laurel, where the pipeline will be drilled. The pipeline will eventually supply gas to NorthWestern’s proposed gas-fired power plant on the north bank of the river, about half a mile downstream from the CHS refinery.
“It’s a terrible place for a pipeline,” said Jenny Harbine, a lawyer representing landowners along the river. “The stakes are too high to rush this permit.”
In fact, it’s NorthWestern’s second choice for a location; the first was to pass under Riverside Park in Laurel and was abandoned by NorthWestern after failing to obtain the required votes from the Laurel City Council.
People also read…
Commissioners sympathized with landowners in the area, but said they found no grounds for appeal. The permitting process was followed, and the various state agencies with an interest in the project, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, all approved.
“I don’t see the evidence,” Commissioner John Ostlund said. “I believe our floodplain administrator has done his job.”
In their appeal, neighbors said county floodplain administrator Tim Miller inexplicably reclassified the location of the pipeline out of the floodway and granted the permit. The entry point from which crews began drilling a pipeline route deep under the river is 175 feet from the south bank of Yellowstone and well inside the flood zone.
Miller explained that a floodplain includes both a floodway and a flood fringe, and that the requirements for a permit to drill and install a pipeline have all been met by NorthWestern.
He said he fully understands the concerns expressed by neighbors, but those concerns fall outside of what is required as part of the permitting process.
“The request was deemed compliant,” he said.
Tuesday’s appeal hearing lasted three hours and heard public comments from more than 30 people.
Representatives from the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development, as well as union representatives, spoke about the importance of the NorthWestern project to the region’s energy economy.
But the vast majority of comments came from neighbors and Laurel residents who expressed concerns about the dangers surrounding the project: accelerated erosion around the drill site and the possibility of an exposed and ruptured pipeline if the Yellowstone reached the flood stage in the future.
NorthWestern Energy wants to bury the project’s risks as deep as the pipeline, they said.
“Please don’t mess with pipelines that put landowners at risk,” Laurel resident Carol Blades told the commissioners.
Craig Smith, an engineer with NorthWestern, told commissioners the pipeline would enter the floodplain at a depth of four feet and reach a depth of 31 feet below the river bank, then touch 50 feet below the main channel of the river. river.
“NorthWestern Energy is not going to let this erode,” he said.
The company’s vice president of transmission, Mike Cashell, told the commissioners that safety was NorthWestern’s biggest concern, along with environmental protection.
“We are true stewards of the environment,” he said.
Neighbors balked, citing the malfunctioning NorthWestern Hebgen Dam that left the Madison River without water in late November as an example, killing dozens of fish.
Blades told the commissioners that neighbors’ fears were not unreasonable. Blades lives off Thiel Road and said in the past 13 years she has been evacuated from her home twice after a pipeline burst in Yellowstone.
Tom Riter, who also lives in the area, said he had suffered a century-old flood twice in the past five years.
“You can’t fight water,” he said. “All you can do is direct it.”
Resident Kara Ronin said that of all the floodplain permit requirements, nothing is included to deal with an accident with the pipeline.
“What happens when something goes wrong,” she asked.
After the meeting, resident Barb Emineth said she was disappointed with the outcome but not surprised. Residents are genuinely concerned about their safety, the health of the river and the environment around it, she said.
If the county’s floodplain permit process doesn’t address those concerns, it might be time to update the permit process, she added.
“It’s not all about one meeting,” she said. “It’s a process.”