HELENA — The state Land Board Tuesday approved the re-routing of a pipeline underneath the Yellowstone River at Laurel, despite opposition and concerns raised by some local landowners.
The Land Board, composed of the top five state officeholders, voted 4-0 to amend an easement allowing NorthWestern Energy to use a new route for the natural-gas pipeline that will supply the company’s proposed new $250 million gas-fired power plant. Board member Attorney General Austin Knudsen was not present.
A half-dozen landowners on the south bank of the river and other opponents from Laurel drove to Helena to speak against the change, saying the new route – just east of U.S. Highway 212 – was in a more environmentally sensitive area and had not been adequately reviewed.
“The specific location that they chose at this time, if you look at the history of it, is the worst place that they could cross the Yellowstone River,” said Steve Krum. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
“This is not a minor amendment,” added Hertha Lund, an attorney representing the landowners. “It changes it to a part of the river that is not stable and could cause problems in the future.”
The pipeline would go underneath the Yellowstone River to supply the power plant, which is slated for construction on the north bank of the Yellowstone River. The plant itself has faced opposition from environmental groups and others, who say it’s an unnecessary investment in a fossil-fuel-burning resource.
Last fall, the state Land Board approved an easement for the pipeline underneath the river. But the city of Laurel declined to grant an easement for the portion of the pipeline route through its property on the south bank of the river.
NorthWestern then decided to move the pipeline route about 1,000 feet downriver and get easements from other property owners on the south bank. Tuesday’s vote was to amend the original easement, for the new route under the river.
Land Board members, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, said there would be other opportunities for public comment about the route of the pipeline and the power plant itself.
NorthWestern also said in a statement that design of the pipeline "ensures the safety of the public and the environment, including the Yellowstone River." It also said the pipeline will serve not only the power plant, but also "significant growth" in the Billings area.
Yellowstone County has said it will redo the process for a flood-plain permit for the pipeline – after opposing landowners filed suit and won a judge’s order this month, saying the original permit-approval had not followed public-participation rules.
Two environmental groups also are suing the state Department of Environmental Quality over the plant’s operating permit, saying the state did not properly consider the plant’s impact on local air and water pollution.
Landowners who testified before the Land Board Tuesday said the new pipeline route goes under a wider portion of the river and would remove a stand of cottonwood trees that fortify the south bank at that location.
Kasey Felder, who lives near the new proposed pipeline route, said the Land Board should delay its decision until concerns about the route’s impact and safety can be reviewed further.
She also questioned why NorthWestern is choosing to place a huge, loud plant that emits pollution in a city in the state’s most populous county.
“I do understand energy comes from somewhere, but I don’t think it needs to come close to people’s homes,” she told MTN News. “Our county has the highest density of people, and you’re asking for allowing a polluter to come in and put that on top of the largest density of people in the state of Montana.”