KILLDEER, N.D. — Basin Electric Power Cooperative said Wednesday it won't build a substation in the historic Killdeer Mountain battlefield area, but it's still planning to build a major transmission line through the heart of where the battle was fought.
The co-op's plans were detailed in a hearing that started in the morning and ended in the evening at Killdeer, just miles from the controversial location.
The Public Service Commission held the hearing to learn why it should waive certain requirements and move directly to issuing a route permit for a 200-mile transmission line that will start at the Antelope Valley Station near Beulah and end near Tioga.
The co-op wants to send another 500 megawatts of electricity into the oil patch to meet an ever-growing appetite for power in the booming oil development area, particularly in the McKenzie County region.
Commission President Brian Kalk said it could be two months before the commission makes any decision and even that will likely be pending federal approval under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The federal OK is needed because Basin plans to use USDA financing for the $375 million project.
Basin doesn't expect any federal decision until March 2014.
Much of Wednesday's hearing was spent sorting out the confusion caused by the recent announcement that the National Park Service, though its American Battlefield Protection Program, has approved a $90,000 grant to study and survey the battlefield for possible inclusion into a National Registry of Historic Places. The study contract was awarded to North Dakota State University's Center for Heritage Renewal.
Basin's engineering manager Duey Marthaller said the co-op didn't learn of the study until early last week and moved immediately to remove a 12-acre substation, but still wants to proceed with the line.
The battlefield study area is about 26 square miles on the south-facing slope and plains of the mountain area. Approximately 48 single pole structures 115 feet high would be spaced across it.
Aaron Barth, who will assist in the battlefield study, said the center didn't know that the battlefield study and the proposed power line were in conflict until the Tribune's story on the issue last week.
"We applaud the development, but we'd like to find some other way around here," Barth said.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said she wasn't happy with the apparent lack of communication.
"This is a very disturbing unfolding of events in the last week and a half. I would hope you all in cultural resources would get together to avoid this in the future. This not showing up on the State Historical Society's radar until a week before (the hearing) — something is off there," Fedorchak said.
Commissioner Randy Christmann wasn't pleased either, but for a different reason.
Christmann chastised Barth, saying none of the landowners were aware their private land was now inside a study area until the Tribune story.
"I'd be offended if a government agency took something this far without talking to me first," Christmann said.
Killdeer Mountain landowner Craig Dvirnak said he owns more than six sections inside the battlefield study area. He said he's neutral on the transmission line, but he is against the proposed study.
"All they've done is instilled mistrust. They should have gotten the landowners on board from day one. With federal money and the Native American culture, when you mix the two, it's never a good outcome for the landowner," Dvirnak said.
The 1864 Battle of the Killdeer Mountain has been called the largest military and Plains Indian engagement of the Great Plains. Barth said it's arguably the most important historic site in North Dakota.
Gerard Baker, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes who has a 35-year career with the National Park Service, said more tribal views are needed, especially from the Sioux tribes that were engaged in the battle.
He said the battlefield should be avoided.
"I encourage you to move it (transmission line) out of the area so that there can be a pure area where people can stand in the middle of the battlefield and talk about what they were fighting for for their children and their grandchildren," Baker said.
Basin's environmental manager, Chris Miller, said the transmission line project has been in the works for three years and the corridor was developed with comment from the public.
He said the co-op will agree to recommendations from the State Historical Society that were issued Tuesday. It will move the substation, assess the visual effects of the transmission line from both the Medicine Hole on top of the mountain and from the battlefield historic monument, use a magnetometer along the line route inside the battlefield area to find artifacts, and conduct more archaeological testing if necessary.
Miller said its options are limited because of the nearby highway and an existing transmission line.
Beside the proposed line and based on booming load growth, Basin said it is also looking at building another transmission line around the east side of the Killdeer Mountains. It may use a route studied as an alternative to the one on the table Wednesday.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said presenting two alternative routes in an environmental document and then building in both of them is not in the spirit of planning and disclosure.
"The alternatives should be out there so that the power line could be built without impacting these cultural areas. If both are built, it's hardly an alternative," she said.