State Grants Access to Yellowstone River for Power Plant Pipeline

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Montana’s top state office holders have approved a new route for a natural gas pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River over the protests of Laurel landowners.

Gov. Greg Gianforte, Auditor Troy Downing, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, voted this week to approve the new route beneath the river. Land beneath riverbeds in Montana is state property and easements require approval of the State Land Board, comprised of the top five state government officeholders. The fifth member, Attorney General Austin Knudsen didn’t attend. All of Montana’s statewide elected officials are Republican.

The pipeline is crucial to the supply of a proposed 175-megawatt gas-fired power plant proposed by NorthWestern Energy, which has run into several permitting problems for the power plant and gas line, and resistance from some Laurel neighbors who traveled to Helena to voice concerns about the pipeline, which is to be located about a half-mile downstream from CHS refinery. Each resident was allowed one minute to speak.

“We have information from a pipeline engineer that says that current design that they’re proposing is not safe,” resident Steve Krum said of NorthWestern Energy.

“Look at the data. This is the worst place on the river to put this. This is not were it belongs. Please, please hold off on your vote until at least the county has a chance to look at this as well and you’ve had a chance to look at the information,” he said.

There are several pipelines crossing beneath the Yellowstone River south of Laurel. In 2011, an Exxon pipeline assumed to be safely buried beneath the river burst after being exposed by high-water river scouring. NorthWestern indicates its pipeline will be 50 feet beneath the riverbed.

The governor said the details of the project weren’t relevant to the pipeline and easement, which was all the Land Board was doing. The board had originally approved the easement months ago when NorthWestern planned to bore beneath Laurel’s Riverside Park crossing the river about 1,000 feet upstream from the new site.

“The only comments that are germane to this discussion today though, are related to the easement in addition to the testimony that was heard today, both for and against,” Gianforte said Tuesday. “I want the record to show we also have a letter of support from the Billings Chamber of Commerce, Local 82, the local legislator who represents the citizens there, Sue Vinton, and the Montana Petroleum Association, Local 459 plumbers and pipefitters, as well as others.”

The Laurel City Council voiced concerns after hearing from neighbors opposed to the locating the pipeline beneath the park, which is why the pipeline route changed. After the pipeline was relocated, neighbors along the new route weren’t notified by county officials as required, which prompted a district judge to order the permit revoked and construction suspended.

NorthWestern attorney Shannon Heim told the Land Board the concerns raised by Laurel neighbors were best suited for Yellowstone County when it takes up the floodplain permit for the pipeline in coming weeks.

“Northwestern does have substantive responses to all of the issues raised today, both in the written comments and before you,” Heim said. “They are better and more appropriately addressed to the county as they deal with a floodplain permit and we will deal with those there.”

The written testimony referred to was a report from a pipeline engineer for Accufacts Inc. The report outlined several concerns about the 8-inch natural gas pipeline planned by NorthWestern. Specifically, the report questioned whether enough details had been provided to show the pipeline was suitable for high-pressure natural gas transmission. There was a possibility of corrosion if the 8-inch line contacted the inside of a 12-inch pipe intended as a sleeve, or carrier, for the line traveling beneath the river.

“The carrier pipe intent is the most dangerous of safety approaches because it creates the illusion of a safety that significantly increases the likelihood and consequences of a gas pipeline failure,” reported engineer Richard Kuprewicz. He also questioned the safety of 90-degree bends in the existing pipeline.

NorthWestern is repurposing an oil pipeline that runs from Wyoming to Laurel. The plan is to convert the for high-pressure natural gas delivery.

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