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Transmission line rebuild project begins

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| June 2, 2009 12:00 AM

After at least three decades of proposals, documents and public meetings, the effort to improve the transmission system in northwestern Montana finally got under way last week.

Bonneville Power Administration’s rebuild of a 17-mile section of 115-kilovolt line from Libby to Troy commenced on May 26 with work focused on the Libby and Troy substations. The project has been an ongoing saga for years.

“I’m very excited and there are many people at Bonneville excited,” said Erich Orth, project manager. “There are a lot of people 20 years ago who started their careers working on this project. Many people are happy to see this.”

The project’s beginnings can be traced back even further than 20 years ago. Officials have long considered upgrades for various purposes and the first environmental impact statements were issued in the late 1970s. Over the years, the scope of the project was redefined and things appeared to be rolling in the 1990s when the project was cancelled for fiscal reasons.

Last year, the final environmental impact statement was issued and by mid-summer, the record of decision was issued. Contract terms and other permits were secured and work is now on for a line rebuild that was estimated in the final EIS to cost $17 million.

Residents and motorists in the Kootenai River Road area of Libby will eventually get an up-close look at the project. Orth said that stretch of the rebuild will be among the most noticeable spots for locals.

“We’ll have our contractor doing flagging and traffic control, letting any drivers know what’s going on,” Orth said. “After we get to the end of Kootenai River Road, then we do go back into the hills and we’ll be pretty unnoticeable.”

Construction activities will include the removal and installation of poles, conductors and insulators along with the improvement and construction of access roads. Removal of trees or other vegetation that may compromise the line will also occur and residents in the area may experience noise, dust and increased traffic.

Initial work involves teardown of the old components along with preliminary roadwork near the BPA substation east of Troy and Flathead Electric’s substation at Libby. Crews are expected to get into the Pipe Creek area in early July and the majority of the actual line work should begin after mid-August. The schedule shows construction wrapping by the end of November.

“The biggest challenge is there is a lot of critical (wildlife) habitats out there … and lots of time restrictions that we’ve been working with in the EIS and identified. It’s made for a construction schedule that’s a little out of the norm.”

Orth estimated that 25 percent of the project will be noticeable for the public with the other 75 percent “up in the hills.”

Noble Excavating is among the local contractors hired to work on the project. In fact, Noble’s gravel pit is the “show up yard” where workers meet in the morning.

As the project proceeds this fall, helicopters will assist with construction material delivery in inaccessible portions of the route. Those spots include along the historic Highway 2 trail and areas along Bighorn Trail/Sheep Range Road. Copters will be used to add new transmission wire to the new structures except in the Big Horn Terrace and Pipe Creek residential areas. BPA will install the conductor from the ground in those spots.

BPA officials are just glad to see the project begin, especially with the long list of repairs that have been completed in recent years.

“The reliability of this line has deteriorated every year; it’s just gotten worse,” Orth said. “The man hours of putting Band-Aids on this line has become overwhelming.”

On the Net: For background and public documents on the transmission line rebuild, go online to www.efw.bpa.gov/environmental_services/Document_Library/Libby