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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why a tribe is cutting its power use as part of a deal with a hydroelectric company

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Inside the Boreal Energy Center just outside Kalispell, Daniel Gould pleaded for the government to allow a 650-acre hydroelectric project to begin. His company, Panhandle Power, which operates about 200 power plants, hopes the boondoggle could put much-needed power in the hands of Western residents.

That is the way it seems to be for Mr. Gould and the environmental community. For the past four years, Panhandle has engaged in a public relations battle with area dam operators, a fight over water use and water rights, and a decades-long battle over the Boreal energy center and a coal-laden mine that should be waiting to burst.

Panhandle wants to extract coal from a coal mine where it anticipates the river won’t be allowed to run in the future, and to redirect water to help the project get started.

The governments of B.C. and Montana (and some local residents) oppose the project. But some local conservation groups have sided with Panhandle, stating in essence that B.C. isn’t going to allow the mine to continue as it would, so let’s go ahead with the project.

Last summer, Panhandle and the Native American Tribes, which have traditionally relied on the river to make their living, reached a deal. The tribes agreed to downsize and curtailed their use of the water, and Panhandle promised to use “all the resources and talent” to lessen the water impact.

Under the deal, Native American Tribes have agreed to cut down their human water use by 40 percent, from a peak of 1,500 million gallons a year to 900 million gallons.

The deal doesn’t compel the B.C. government to give approval to the project, and still has to be approved by the U.S. Interior Department. “Our work is just getting started,” according to a release from the tribes. “This is a real breakthrough for our tribal members and for our future.”

Panhandle has also agreed to work with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to identify ways to reduce the environmental impact of the project, and it has promised to put monitoring equipment into the river once it begins operations. “And we are open to discussion,” according to a release from the EPA.

What do EPA and Panhandle see in a deal that would cut environmental impact, while somehow funneling money to Native American tribes whose organizations had previously fought a hydroelectric project on the river? “Panhandle is committed to a cooperative relationship with the tribes and looks forward to implementing ongoing groundwater monitoring, fish habitat restoration and wetland mitigation plans,” according to a release from Panhandle. “These activities are essential to mitigating the amount of water that we will ultimately take.”

[Adam] Dornbusch, who is the regional administrator at the EPA for northern Idaho, was careful to say that he has been advised by Panhandle and that the two organizations are willing to work on a way to make sure the project can continue to operate. (It’s not clear how the dams affect the Blackfeet Tribes, whose relationships to the river had been particularly tense in the past.)

The Blackfeet Tribe would not comment on the arrangement, referring calls to Native American tribes in Canada.

Mr. Dornbusch said he appreciated the focus Panhandle has put on the area, and his commitment to working with local tribal groups.

“We’re very interested in working with the tribes,” he said. “We want to do it right. We want to make sure we’re getting there.”

The stakes for the project are high, according to Neisha Hornbeck, project coordinator at Panhandle Power. It needs to have hundreds of millions of gallons of water by next summer, in order to run the turbines, and the last resort option, a pipeline tunnel into the shale that could take years to complete.

The other option, in Mr. Dornbusch’s mind, is to go into some combination of the two: “Both are pretty realistic,” he said. “We would like to land both.”

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