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River Road residents concerned by BPA proposal

| September 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The BPA transmission line drops down off a mountainside and follows the Kootenai

River Road for two miles.

BY ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

Residents at the end of Kootenai River Road are getting organized to fight a Bonneville Power Administration proposal that could expand the existing transmission line right-of-way.

The BPA informed residents earlier this summer that it was looking at rebuilding 17 miles of the 115-kV transmission line and towers, which are about 50 years old. The transmission line wooden poles are deteriorating as well as cross members.

The proposed rebuild follows the BPA's existing right-of-way with three possible re-routings to bypass residences adjacent to the City of Libby, to bypass residences in what's being called the Big Horn Terrace area, but impacts nearly every property owner from Upper Quartz Creek Road to the end of the Kootenai River Road, and a river crossing about one-half mile upstream of the existing China Creek line crossing the Kootenai River.

Property owners are concerned that the BPA will be expanding the existing right-of-way forcing them to sell land or move their homes for the quasi-government agency. Several homes are either within the existing 80-foot right-of-way or on the edge of it.

The BPA told residents at the July meeting that structures within the easement will be moved and property purchased for additional easement, said Richard Wilkonski, who grew up in the Big Horn Terrace area and has a trailer home within the existing right-of-way.

"I left the meeting with the impression that they had already made up their minds but they won't let us know until spring 2007," Wilkonski said.

The BPA wanted residents to comment on the proposed alternatives by Sept. 30 but has extended the deadline for comments to Oct. 30.

The BPA proposals are:

* To rebuild the 115-kV line on newer wood poles with some wood-pole equivalent steel poles;

* Rebuild the line as double-circuit 115-kV on tubular steel towers;

* Rebuild the line as a double-circuit 230-kV line on steel towers;

* Take no action.

The three rebuild alternatives would require the BPA to purchase additional right-of-way adjacent to the existing right-of-way, according to a scoping letter released by the BPA earlier this month.

The existing right-of-way ranges from 60 to 80 feet. The BPA is proposing to expand that right-of-way to 100 feet and possibly 125 feet if they decide to rebuild the line as a double-circuit 230-kV line on steel towers

There are 69 people listed among the concerned residents living at the end of the Kootenai River Road working with each other on these proposals.

"Everybody is quite concerned about this even if they're not affected by the right-of-way," Wilkonski said recently. "We're going to have big steel towers and a 230-kV line with concerns about EMF."

EMF is electromagnetic field or electromagnetic radiation, which some studies have said are possibly carcinogenic to humans and others have linked to a doubling of childhood leukemia rates. Studies also show that as distance increases from the electromagnetic source, the danger decreases.

Wilkonski said the issues presented in the BPA proposal deal with property values and human health.

"We all support the alternative of going up Upper Quartz Creek Road," he said.

BPA project manager Kirk Robinson said there is not much reason to be alarmed at this time.

He said the BPA is looking to the environmental impact statement for the project to guide the agency in making a decision.

"Through the information that comes from it, decisions can be made," Robinson said.

The draft EIS is due next spring.

The State of Montana proposed the alternative routes away from residential areas, according to Robinson.

"We are looking at it seriously," he said. "We are making an attempt to miss some Plum Creek land that they might want to sell. We are also looking to avoid getting any closer to private property."

Robinson said the geography of the area does limit what the BPA can do.

"We're making every attempt to avoid private property," he said. "There are lots of alternatives but frankly our planning folks are leaning toward the 230-kV line.

"I think that forces us to use the Quartz Creek re-route and it doesn't require us to purchase additional right-of-way."

The rebuilds are not part of a proposal to add generation capacity to Libby Dam, he said. However, the existing transmission line is incapable of transferring the total potential power produced at Libby Dam out of the area. Libby and Hungry Horse dams are presently being operated so that a total of 7 units at the two dams are producing power at one time because of limitations of the aging transmission lines.

Part of that problem is the reduction in regional power usage with the cutbacks at the Columbia Falls Aluminum plant and the loss of timber mills in the area.

The re-route proposal for the line crossing the Kootenai River near China Creek is for two reasons, Robinson said. First, maintenance crews can't reach the existing line because of a wash-out in that area, and second the Kootenai Salish Tribe has complained the line can be seen from the Kootenai Falls area, which is a sacred site for Native Americans.

People may comment on the BPA's Libby to Troy Proposed Rebuild by writing to: Bonneville Power Administration, Communications Office - DM-7, P.O. Box 14428, Portland, Oregon, 97293-4428 or e-mailing comment@bpa.gov .

More information can be found by visiting the website http://www.bpa.gov/comment/