VALIER — Voices crackled above a bitter-cold wind as workers stringing conductor on the Montana Alberta Tie Line transmission project, situated on opposite sides of the Marias River, communicated via radio north of here earlier this week. They were about to string the final span of the long-time-coming project — a nearly 4,000-foot stretch across the Marias River.
"It's our largest span on the project," said Rocky Elliott, a safety representative for Enbridge, the developer of the power line, watching as a large spool on the back of a flatbed truck began to turn pulling wire across the river, from one bank to the other.
The U.S. stretch of MATL, a 230-kilovolt transmission line that eventually will span 214 miles from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta, is nearing completion, said Darryl James, a government and public affairs consultant for Enbridge. Crossing the formidable Marias River is the final hurdle in Montana.
It's taken seven years of planning and construction to get this far. Enbridge is estimating total costs in the neighborhood of $300 million.
Planning of MATL first began in 2005. It was permitted in 2008. Construction started in 2010.
Disputes with landowners over the route, issues with a former contractor and a debate at the Legislature over eminent domain law, prompted by the project, led to the delays. Enbridge Inc. of Calgary bought the project in 2011 and now has the line at the finish line, at least the U.S. portion of the project.
"We're just excited to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel," James said.
MATL is the largest transmission line to be constructed in Montana since the mid-1970s, when the Colstrip transmission system was constructed to carry electricity from coal-fired power plants in eastern Montana, James said.
While the Colstrip lines carry coal-fired power, wind developers have secured access to the MATL line. It first was proposed to meet demand for additional transmission capacity.
One lesson learned from the controversy over the MATL project, James said, is "good proactive public engagement is critical to any linear project's success."
Once the Montana portion of the project is completed, crews will mobilize in Alberta, James said.
The entire line probably will be ready for electrification in June, James said. One wind farm in Montana, the Rim Rock, already is hooked onto the line.
James said Enbridge is interested in building more power lines. One logical first step would be upgrading the capacity of the 300-megawatt MATL line to 500 or 600 megawatts. That could be done without expanding the existing corridor, he said.
The company also may pursue an extension of the MATL line south from Great Falls to the Colstrip line.
"It's something we are going to be taking a good close look at over the next couple of months," James said.
On Jan. 30, workers were stationed on both sides of the Marias River preparing for the big conductor pull across the river.
Tim Bury, the construction manager, said most of the conductor spans on the MATL project were 900 to 1,000 feet, but the Marias River crossing is 3,089 feet.
Three steel mono-poles were anchored in the rocky ridges high above the river on both sides.
Typically one pole can carry more than one line, but the long span at the river required additional poles, which are anchored in huge concrete piers 10 to 12 feet in diameter and 30 to 40 feet deep.
"That's a significant span," Bury said. "That definitely took some engineering and some additional work."
In preparation of pulling the conductor across the river, a helicopter pulled a "hard line" through pulleys attached to the arms of the poles on Saturday, a tricky process, Bury said. Wind is a huge factor. And the spools of cable can't be allowed to "free-wheel" nor can there be too much resistance, Bury said.
The final cable was connected to the hard line and a truck with a retrieval spool pulled it across.
The MATL project was a complex, high-profile project with many moving parts that required coordination and safety measures that went unseen by the average person, Bury said.
"We wanted to send everyone home with the same amount of fingers and toes they came to work with," he said.
In September 2012, Enbridge announced that it had repaid a $151 million federal loan to the Western Area Power Administration that Tonbridge had received to construct the line after markets nose-dived in 2008.
Enbridge hired a new contractor, Res Americas, to complete the job.
As the transmission project nears completion, lawmakers in Helena are considering several bills that could affect construction of future transmission lines and those who live in their path.
One bill would repeal the "explicit grant of authority" to a public utility or power line developer to exercise the power of eminent domain.
Rep Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, has introduced a bill that would require the state Department of Environmental Quality to provide written notice disclosing the availability of an environmental assessment to owners within a mile-wide siting corridor.
James said the company supports legislation that would ensure fairness and predictability for the developers and landowners.
Tonbridge initiated several eminent domain cases for the MATL project.
In the end, Enbridge reached negotiated settlements with all of the landowners, James said.
The 2011 Legislature amended the state's eminent domain law as a result of one of those cases.
The change ensured that power companies and transmission developers continued to have the authority to condemn land if needed. A District Court judge had denied the company's use of eminent domain.