BILLINGS — Yellowstone County commissioners denied an appeal Tuesday from a group of 31 Laurel landowners who wanted the county to repeal a floodplain permit granted to NorthWestern Energy for a natural gas pipeline to be built underneath the Yellowstone River.
"We've had a lot of passionate comment, and I appreciate that, but I do not see the evidence to reject the permit," Commissioner John Ostlund said.
The session lasted for more than three hours. Both the landowners' group and NorthWestern Energy presented expert testimony for about 30 minutes each to begin the hearing, before dozens of public comments were given, mostly against the pipeline construction.
"To me, this is not political. It is personal," said Carah Ronan. "My family has lived, worked, and farmed on the banks of the Yellowstone River that we are talking about."
The pipeline was originally set to go under Riverside Park in Laurel, but after two Laurel City Council votes did not provide enough support to approve the routing, the State Land Board approved a new plan to place the pipeline farther east downstream near many of the 31 landowners' properties.
"The fact that they would build it on the river bothers me tremendously. Why would they build it on the river?" asked Priscilla Bell, a Laurel resident and spokesperson for the Northern Plains Resource Council. "They have thousands of miles of service lines across Montana and plenty of space."
Many in the group cited a decrease in property values as well as riverbank erosion as key reasons for the repeal request. Crews removed about 50 cottonwood trees over the winter to make space for the pipeline construction.
The project was then put on hold in mid-January when Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses ordered a halt, saying the county allowed Northwestern Energy to drill in the floodplain without first following proper public notification. The county's attorney, Jeana Lervick, said in a court document that the county would withdraw the permit to comply with the judge's order, but she added that the county does not believe it did anything wrong.
At that time, NorthWestern Energy told MTN News that the utility "has followed the permitting process" and will continue to do so to secure approval, again.
“NorthWestern Energy’s natural gas pipeline capacity into the Yellowstone County area is currently maxed out," a statement said. "The Byron Pipeline will provide service for any significant growth in the Billings area.”
The pipeline is the first step in NWE's plans to build a 175-megawatt power plant on the north side of the river to meet growing demand for power in Montana and the surrounding region. Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big sky Economic Development, and Dan Brooks with the Billings Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor of the project.
"Billings is in a vulnerable position as the center of commerce and industry in Montana, needing to assure that those industries have an affordable, reliable source of power," Arveschoug said. "We're trying to grow our economy, and power is a key, underlying foundational piece."