Montana utility, tribe make peace on new power facility

After years of court battles, the Northern Cheyenne tribe and Montana Public Power have buried the hatchet. The object of the long-standing controversy between the two is the proposed expansion of a coal-fired powerplant at colstrip, just outside the reservation boundaries.

"It affronted a lot of people that we would get all that bad air," explains Cal Wilson, the Cheyenne tribal attorney. "We're not real environmentalists, but it only seems common sense that if you build something, you clean up your mess and don't dump it on your neighbor," he adds.

When Montana Public Power and some other energy development companies moved into the area, the Cheyenne began worrying about their future.

"We were scared about what was going to happen. After all this [the reservation] is the end of it. We don't have anywhere to go and we'd been pushed around so much in the past," Mr. Wilson recalls.

Yet when the Indians expressed their concerns, they found themselves ignored.

"During the heat of battle we had no direct contact with the Northern Cheyennes," acknowledges John Ross of Montana Public Power.

In 1974, about a year after the controversy began, a Sierra Club lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the tribe some legal muscle.

This suit required EPA to prevent deterioration of air quality in pristine areas. The EPA, in complying with the Supreme Court decision in this case, allowed states and reservations to apply for a Class I designation, which puts the most stringent controls on air emissions.

The Northern Cheyenne quickly applied for such a designation, and it was granted.

"As a result, we were forced to get an improved emissions control system," Mr. Ross says.

This led to EPA approval for the proposed expasion last year. But, locked into an adversarial relationship with the company, the tribe was prepared to litigate the issue further.

"We were lookin' at another long fight when, at about the same time, the tribal council and the company decided maybe we should negotiate," Mr. Wilson says.

The provisions of both state and EPA permits required the power company to work with the tribe on air-quality monitoring and establishment of a training program for Cheyenne workers.

As a result, when the tribe invited Montana Public Power executives out to the reservation to talk things over, they came.

"There were those in the company who were reluctant to deal with the Indians, particularly in regard to employment. But we convinced them that it was essential in order to avoid further litigation," says Mr. Ross.

The talks began quite hesitantly. But "pretty soon the whole thing took off and we got a real comprehensive agreement," Mr. Wilson continues.

This agreement includes the establishment of an air-quality monitoring network on the reservation, training and employment of Cheyennes at the Colstrip power plant, and some direct impact aid to the tribe to help offset the social and economic impact of the development.

Although still in early stages, the arrangement appears to be quite satisfactory to both sides.

"We are now employing 110 Cheyennes at the plant and their absentee rate is better than average," reports Mr. Ross. He attributes this to the activities of an ombudsman, selected by the tribe but paid by the company, who has selected tribal members for training and employment at the plant.

The tribe is enthusiastic about some of the steps that the powr company has taken.

They are proud of the air-monitoring stations that are being built. These will help them assess the impact not only of the Colstrip plants but also of oil and gas development that is beginning on their land.

Montana Public Power has given the tribe some money to iprove their law enforcement and planning departments. They also supported the tribe when they went to the state recently to request impact aid for the reservation school district.

"We went in hand-in-hand instead of fighting," says Mr. Wilson, who characterizes their new relationship as "kind of amazing."

So heartened are the Cheyennes by these developments that they have initiated talks with state officials about the quantification of their water rights, another long-standing controversy.

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