(Dam) power to the people

Montana State Roundup

Published January 1, 2002  | January 2002 issue

A group of Montanans hope to offer voters a plan to protect electricity sources and stave off predicted rate increases.

Some state legislators and environmental groups are proposing an initiative for the 2002 ballot that would allow the state to buy back dams from the private utility PPL Montana and operate them as a public source of power. The initiative calls for the creation of a commission to analyze the dams and assess their usefulness to the state. Financing the purchase would come through revenue bonds paid for by power sales, not tax money.

The 11 dams in question, along with two coal-fired power plants, were purchased by PPL Corp. in 1999 from the Montana Power Co. PPL is opposed to the initiative, saying it would not solve energy problems and could lead to higher costs. Initiative supporters counter that public ownership would give Montanans some control over their own energy sources. Should the initiative pass and PPL continue its opposition, the commission will have the power of eminent domain to condemn the dams and pay fair market price for them.

Before the initiative can be entered onto the ballot, however, upwards of 20,000 signatures need to be gathered, and that effort is incumbent on a review by three state agencies.

Kathy Cobb