North Western gas plant proposal stalls over city’s objections
North Western Energy’s plans to build a gas-fired power plant have stalled in Laurel, where neighbors say the generator will ruin their quality of life.
Last week, the Laurel City Council again delayed votes critical to the plant’s development and formed a fact-finding commission to square the utility’s statements with neighborhood concerns about noise and pollution.
“We represent the citizens. The citizens have continued to come into this chamber and speak against this plant,” said Heidi Sparks, a City Council member explaining that after doing her own research, if she had to vote today, she would vote no.
NorthWestern, which announced its intention to build the gas plant eight months ago, still needs several things from the City of Laurel, including a zoning change and an easement to bore a natural gas pipeline beneath Riverside Park, which offers the community its best public access to the Yellowstone River.
City staff have warned the council not to put the cart before the horse by granting NorthWestern the needed changes without first annexing the property to assure the power plant’s property taxes, estimated at $10 million a year, mostly flow to Laurel.
NorthWestern, which did not respond to an interview request for this article, assures Laurel there will be time for annexation later.
Then, there is the issue of power plant noise raised by neighbors.
“Mayor (Emelie) Eaton can you help me out with this?” said Aaron Felder as he produced a decibel meter and a boom box to illustrate during a meeting just how loud 65 decibels of noise are.
A woman in the front row used her fingers to plug her ears as Felder pumped up the jams, of what sounded like a large locomotive or factory engine.
“That’s holding steady at 61,” Eaton said, as Felder’s voice faded beneath the groan of trundling steel.
“So, it’s a constant noise, 24/7,” Felder said after turning off the sound. And when the sound hits the water, it goes even further.”
Felder and his wife, Kasey, live on the opposite side the Yellowstone River from the power plant site. They can see the tallest pieces of the power plant substation rising above the riverbank treetops. The potential of 18 stacks, 77 feet tall, in the same location concerns them and their neighbors.
“These people live very close to those 18 stacks, concentrated in one area, one breeze in the wrong direction can lay that pollution right on top of them. They’re that close,” Steve Krum told the council.
When neighbors on the south side of the river heard the utility describe the power plant’s noise as minimal, not unlike a vacuum cleaner, they thought they better check it out.
Steve Krum looked up the decibels reported by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, which permitted the gas plant earlier this year. DEQ reported the noise to be 65 decibels. The city planning committee had been told the noise from the plant would travel west toward the CHS refinery, but the DEQ application indicated the noise would travel in every direction for 200 yards, too close for the neighbors on the opposite side of the Yellowstone.
The folks living on the south side of the river tend to be blue collar. Aaron Felder is a crane operator who works at the region’s oil refineries. Krum is a retired refinery worker.
Silence and distance define the neighborhoods on the Yellowstone’s south banks. Every home is a five-minute walk down a gravel road from the next. The gardens are large, and the wildlife is ample. This time of year, you see bald eagles nesting in the trees along the river. At night you can hear owls.
NorthWestern has conveyed the importance of the gas plant, telling the City Council if it doesn’t approve the easement and zoning, Montanans’ utility bills will skyrocket.
“If we don’t do this, we end up on the open market buying power at $500 to $600 per megawatt hour, rather than generating it ourselves at $30 to $40 a megawatt hour. And I don’t think our customers would appreciate that. It would violate our mission to provide safe reliable, 24-7 power,” said Roy Ishkanian, manager of lands and permitting for NorthWestern Energy.
The north side of the Yellowstone River where the utility intends to build its power plant is home to the Laurel sewer plant, NorthWestern’s substation and is several hundred yards east of the CHS refinery. The location is right for a gas plant, Ishkanian said. NorthWestern intends to use the power plant to offset periods when production from renewable energy sources is down.
The new power plant is a reciprocating internal combustion engine, or RICE plant. Easily ramped up or down, RICE plants have become a popular tool for balancing intermittent generating resources like wind and solar farms. For perspective, the RICE plant’s 175-megawatt capacity would be about 78% of the nameplate capacity of NorthWestern’s 30% share of Colstrip Power Plant Unit 4.
The “or else” scenario posed by Ishkanian was quickly rebutted by Jennifer Harbine, an attorney for Earth Justice who clarified that it’s the Montana Public Service Commission, not the Laurel City Council that determines what NorthWestern’s customers will pay for electricity.
The challenges faced by the gas plant aren’t limited to the City Council. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is being sued for its permitting of the power plant. The Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club say DEQ ignored the power plant’s contribution to local air and water pollution.
The area where the power plant would be located has already been dinged by the EPA for excessive sulfur dioxide levels, mainly emanating from a CHS oil refinery near the gas-fired power plant site. Carbon dioxide from the gas-fired plant, some 769,706 tons a year, is a climate change contributor. Harbine is representing the plaintiffs, who argue the DEQ ignored the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which requires a comprehensive treatment of environmental risks.
Time has also become a challenge for building the plant, according to NorthWestern. The utility had initially attempted to get preapproval to bill customers $283.8 million for the power plant. That months-long process before the Montana Public Service Commission was halted abruptly in September because, NorthWestern explained, it needed to “accelerate the commercial operation date of Laurel Generating Station,” as the power plant is known. Seeking preapproval could have taken until early March 2022.
At the time NorthWestern was abandoning preapproval in Montana, it was also discontinuing plans for a $60 million gas-fired power plant in Aberdeen, South Dakota, again because of significant increases in construction costs related to supply chain problems.
Sunday will mark two months since NorthWestern announced it was expediting construction. The building site shows few signs of activity.
The Laurel fact-finding commission was already coming together Nov. 16 as a signup sheet went through the audience at the City Council meeting.Woman charged with bomb threat against Montana Trappers Association
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