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Decision on power line through N.D. battlefield study area delayed

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BISMARCK -- State utility regulators on Wednesday delayed action on a controversial plan to run about 200 miles of high-voltage power lines across part of western North Dakota - including the study area of an 1864 battle between American Indians and Army soldiers.

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The Public Service Commission pushed a decision on Basin Electric Power Cooperative's transmission line to a future meeting. The power line would run from its Antelope Valley power plant near Beulah to a substation near Tioga to help meet growing demand for power in western North Dakota's oil and gas producing region.

PSC Chairman Brian Kalk said earlier this week the order he has drafted would make the PSC's approval contingent on several requirements, including that Bismarck-based Basin Electric submit a copy of the federal government's final environmental impact statement prior to starting construction of the 345-kilovolt line.

"The order that I put together has some caveats in it," he said Monday.

PSC approval would not guarantee the estimated $375 million project will be built. Basin Electric still needs permission from three federal agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"It's one of a number of very important steps," co-op spokesman Curt Pearson said.

While Kalk wouldn't specifically discuss the other conditions in his order, he noted that a letter of concurrence from the State Historic Preservation Office often is part of such approval orders.

That condition was included in the proposed order submitted to the PSC by Basin Electric's attorney. The order also included a requirement to halt earthwork if any "cultural resource, paleontological, archeological, historical, or grave site is discovered during construction."

Native American tribes have spoken out against the proposed transmission line, which would run through the area of the 1864 Killdeer Mountain Battle between Sioux Indians and Army soldiers.

A North Dakota State University history professor who received a grant from the National Park Service to study the area as a potential historical site has claimed that Basic Electric ignored the site's historical significance to avoid having to possibly preserve it, which the co-op denies.

Pearson said the co-op has mostly completed work required by the State Historical Preservation Office to create a visual rendering of what the area will look like with the transmission line running through it, as well as an extensive metal-detecting process on the right-of-way through the study area. He said the co-op is working with state and federal agencies to address concerns wherever possible.

"It's an ongoing process at this point," he said.

Kalk said he has "significant concerns" about the reliability of North Dakota's power grid, and the major transmission line "is needed very, very badly."

The co-op hopes to obtain federal approval in time to start construction in late summer or fall, Pearson said. Portions of the project would be completed in late 2015 and early 2016, and the majority of it would be done in 2016 and 2017.

The transmission line would be strung on single-pole steel towers, as opposed to the older lattice-style towers that are more visually intrusive, Pearson said.

The project would touch parts of Dunn, McKenzie, Mercer, Mountrail and Williams counties.

"All the issues that I've had concerns about have been dealt with, so it's time to move this forward," Kalk said.

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