Yellowstone County approves permit for NorthWestern Energy natural gas power plant in Laurel

Lawsuit challenging air pollution still being fought in district court

By: - March 29, 2022 5:21 pm

Residents stand in line to comment on a proposed natural-gas fired power plant in Laurel, Montana. The Yellowstone County Commission voted 3-0 to approve the floodplain permit (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Carol Blades remembers the eruption that looked like something from Yellowstone National Park, a geyser of water spraying into the air from beneath the Yellowstone River, just south of Laurel.

She saw that as she was crossing the bridge less than a half-mile from her home, as she was being ordered out of her residence by emergency responders.  A natural-gas pipeline had ruptured there, sending a jet of water and gas into the air.

Two years later, in the middle of the night, pounding at the front door and the incessant doorbell ringing awakened her and her family. They were met at the door by uniformed police officers who told them they had to immediately evacuate again.

Another pipeline break.

That’s why she and more than three dozen people testified at the Yellowstone County Commission meeting in Billings on Tuesday, on an appeal to deny a floodplain certification for an eight-inch natural gas pipeline that would travel beneath the river to serve a 175-megawatt natural gas power plant operated by NorthWestern Energy.

“History, and not very old history, in fact very, very recent history is telling us that it is not a safe place for a pipeline,” Glade said. “In 2011, this commission was warned just days prior that the pipeline was going to rupture, and it ignored the warnings and we know the outcome of that terrible decision. Do not gamble on pipelines, and do not gamble with the residents.”

On Tuesday, Yellowstone County Commissioners listened to public testimony, which leaned heavily toward urging the commission to deny the permit. Testimony pushed beyond the three-hour mark. In less than five minutes, the commissioners unanimously voted to deny the appeal, clearing way for the pipeline to be placed beneath the Yellowstone River.

Power, pipelines and people

The power plant, which is commonly referred to as the Laurel Generation Station, would sit south of town, not far from the CHS refinery, easily visible from Highway 212. The proposal generated significant attention and criticism after plans for it were pulled from the state’s Public Service Commission, leading many critics to question the necessity of the station, which will have 18 reciprocating, internal combustion turbines, capable of producing as much as 175-megawatts of power.

Officials from NorthWestern Energy have said the Laurel plant, and several others throughout the state, are necessary to meet increasing power demands driven by a growing population and energy market instability, coupled with a decrease in coal-powered plants. Moreover, Yellowstone County, the state’s largest, continues to grow and is home to three oil refineries, major consumers of power. Also, the county saw the Corette Power Plant, located downriver on the Yellowstone in Billings, shutter because of air pollution from its coal-fired generators, leaving no power plants in the county.

On Tuesday, many of the residents speaking out against the floodplain proposal raised questions about how accurately NorthWestern had answered its application and urged the commissioners to slow the process, independently investigate their concerns, or force the energy company to move the pipeline closer to Riverside Park in Laurel.

Ultimately, the commissioners, all Republican, said they were satisfied with the county staff’s assessment, which recommended approval of the floodplain certification, possibly the only local decision that will be before county leaders.

The wild Yellowstone River

Both sides argued about how much erosion had changed the channel of the river in the previous 70 years. DeWitt Dominick, a geomorphologist, told the commission that the river channel where the pipeline is sited has experienced a volatile amount of erosion, while officials for NorthWestern said the 175-foot setback was adequate.

His research and survey showed that area of the Yellowstone River had lost 50 feet of bank since 2015, and as much as 100 feet since the 1950s. During his presentation, Dominick showed one piece of land near the pipeline has lost much more.

“It used to be 28 acres, now it’s less than 8 acres,” Dominick said. “To say it’s a stable bank line is a misnomer. You don’t have to be a geomorphologist to see the erosion.”

Residents also said that both the county and NorthWestern had not considered the scour-depth, or how deep the river in the area was likely to run when it floods. But the lead engineer for the project also told the county the scour depth was just a little bit more than 3.5 feet, and state law just requires the placement at two times the scour depth, which would be about seven feet deep. Instead, NWE has proposed placing the pipeline at 31 feet, below the bedrock of the river.

Shannon Heim, an attorney for NorthWestern, told the commission that erosion is not a threat because the pipeline will be beneath the bedrock, making it far less likely to rupture.

“We’re not saying erosion isn’t an issue there, but that’s why it will be 31 feet,” Heim said.

That is more than four times the amount required by law.

Property values and health concerns

Still, other residents said that the county commissioners had the responsibility to guard their property and the county’s tax base. They said the new plant, with its smokestacks for the internal-combustion engines, would create an eyesore and depress their land values. And they said the three commissioners also have a responsibility to look out for the health hazards that adding more pollution will create, or protecting the river as the source of drinking water for the county.

Stickers that citizens wore to urge Yellowstone County Commissioners to deny a permit to NorthWestern Energy for a natural gas pipeline for a proposed plant in Laurel, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“I have one looming question that no one from NorthWestern has answered: What happens when something goes wrong? We live surrounded by two pipelines and we have had two failures in our neighborhood since 2011, and that’s why we’re on our toes,” said resident Carah Roman. “A pipeline doesn’t create growth. And we’re sitting ducks that could be burned alive if this breaks or it will kill our property values.”

The county also announced that it had received written comments on the proposal, 10 in favor and 93 against it.

“This is unneeded, unwanted and for residents of Laurel, we will see it, smell it and we will hear it,” said Barbara Emineth who lives in the neighborhood of 31 homes.

Labor and business

Leaders from the Big Sky Economic Development Authority and the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce came forward to express their support of the pipeline approval on behalf of their organizations. Both said that expanded power generation in Yellowstone County would ensure reliable, affordable power and help attract business.

“A recent study said that Billings will need 2,000 more dwellings annually to keep up with affordable housing demands,” said Dan Brooks of the Billings Chamber. “Well, they will need to be supplied with energy.”

State Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, supported the proposal as well, saying there was no link between the approval commissioners were being asked to give and concerns like asthma.

“We have heard a lot of different theories today about things like asthma. I am not sure how a floodplain permit will effect that or the atmosphere or our skyline, and that’s what’s at issue here, the floodplain permit,” Usher said. “It’s about how many jobs this will bring and how industrial business and residents need more energy.”

But Usher wasn’t the only other elected official there. Melissa Nootz, a Livingston City Council representative, urged the Yellowstone County Commissioners to value the economic engine the river plays in tourism and deny the permit, saying that NorthWestern’s recent safety record, especially at Hebgen Dam, has proven the company unable to proactively guard against catastrophe.

Three representatives from local unions also testified as part of the support, saying that the plant will create good construction jobs and high-paying jobs in the future.

“If you want windmills, you have to have natural gas, too,” said Allen White of Local 400. He explained that “green” or renewable energy also requires investment in carbon-based energy to have reliability.

Another legal challenge

Jenny Harbine, a lawyer who filed the appeal of the county commission’s floodplain approval, said it’s too early to know whether this particular aspect will be challenged in court.

However, even if the floodplain permit remains unchallenged and moves forward in Yellowstone County, several groups have taken the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to court for allegedly not following its own rules regarding air pollution. Currently, that case is winding its way through the state courts, and construction of the plant will be uncertain until after the courts issue a final decision.

As each commissioner was given a chance to weigh in on the issue, Tom Reiter of Laurel stood up before the vote was taken.

He helped launch the boats from his property to help emergency personnel when a pipeline broke beneath the Yellowstone in 2011. And he also pointed out that he testified against a subdivision the county approved in a floodplain adjacent to his property several years ago, saying basements continue to flood and septic systems are failing.

He urged the commission to finally learn from history, and reject the pipeline project.

As he stood, he turned his back, put on his jacket, and waved both of his hands, leaving just moments before the vote.

“I’m done with them. They never listen,” he said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.