Regulators OK power line crossing Killdeer Mountain battlefield area; Project still needs federal approval
BISMARCK – State regulators granted a permit Wednesday for a high-voltage power line that will cross the area of an 1864 battle between American Indians and Army soldiers in western North Dakota.
The Basin Electric Power Cooperative project still needs federal approval.
The three-member Public Service Commission voted unanimously in favor of the $375 million, 197-mile-long transmission line that will run from Basin Electric’s Antelope Valley Station near Beulah to a substation near Tioga to help meet growing demand for power in the state’s oil and gas producing region.
“This is one big step, in my mind, in the process of getting this line built,” commission Chairman Brian Kalk said.
The commission’s approval is contingent on several conditions, including that Basin Electric follow the recommendations of the State Historic Preservation Office and obtain its assurance that no historic sites will be affected before starting construction in the study area of the 1864 Killdeer Mountain Battle between Sioux Indians and Army soldiers.
A North Dakota State University history professor received a grant from the National Park Service to study the area as a potential historical site, and Native American tribes have spoken out against the proposed transmission line running through it.
“This is a process, and there’s many other groups that are still involved in this discussion,” Kalk said.
A cultural survey was conducted on the eight-mile segment of the study area that the transmission line will cross, “and there was nothing found in the area of the study, so that is very significant,” Kalk said, adding there’s a half-mile section that remains to be surveyed but the landowner hasn’t granted access.
Bismarck-based Basin Electric also must file a copy of the final federal environmental impact statement before starting work on the project. Spokesman Curt Pearson said the co-op hopes to have federal approval by mid- to late July. Construction of the three-phase project could begin as early as late summer and will last into 2017.
“We’re very pleased with today’s ruling,” he said.
Under the order approved Wednesday, the co-op also must provide a letter from Williston city leaders stating that the transmission line won’t interfere with the city’s Sloulin Field airport project.
Basin Electric has obtained signed easements from landowners representing more than 90 percent of the right of way needed for the transmission line, co-op officials said.
Commissioners said the available power supply in booming western North Dakota communities will become inadequate in the near future without such projects. The transmission line will cross parts of Dunn, McKenzie, Mercer, Mountrail and Williams counties.
“I think it's really important for all of us to remember that this region is one of the fastest-growing regions in the whole country,” Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said, adding millions of dollars are being invested in roads, hospitals, schools, community centers and airports. “All of that will be for naught without power infrastructure to support it.”
Commissioner Randy Christmann said almost all of the landowners who attended a Sept. 4 public hearing in Killdeer said it was a good route and should be approved.
“They understand the need for this and that is has to go somewhere and that this is the best place,” he said.
The project requires federal approval because it will cross federal grasslands and because Basin Electric is seeking to finance the bulk of the project through the federal Rural Utilities Service. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the co-op also must obtain permission from the U.S. Forest Service and the Western Area Power Administration.
Bismarck Attorney Derrick Braaten filed a letter with the commission on Tuesday on behalf of three landowners and the Killdeer Mountain Alliance, urging the PSC to delay final consideration of Basin Electric's request until after federal approval is granted.
Kalk said Wednesday the requirements over which the commission has jurisdiction had been met.
“I think it’s important that when we have the questions answered, we go forward on it,” he said.
When asked if the co-op expects a lawsuit related to the battlefield, Casey Jacobson, an attorney for Basin Electric, said, “We have no indication at this point that there will be any challenge to the permit, but we suspect there’s always a chance,”