The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission said it cannot revoke a permit to build a high-voltage transmission line across the reservation of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe even though the commission may have erred in granting it in the first place.
The five-member commission voted unanimously Thursday to close discussion on a request by the band to revoke or suspend the route permit for the 70-mile, 230-kilovolt line between Bemidji and Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota.
A group of regional utilities led by Otter Tail Power of Fergus Falls wants to build the $107 million project to shore up the electrical grid. It is slated to be in operation by the end of 2012.
The Leech Lake band claims the utilities failed to obtain proper permission from the tribal council to build across its reservation. Much of the land is public but the tribe retains hunting, fishing and gathering rights that require tribal permission, its attorneys say.
The utilities counter the tribe has no authority to stand in the way of the line because it does not cross land owned by the tribal trust or tribe members.
Both sides have filed lawsuits in federal and tribal courts. A hearing on a lawsuit filed by the utilities is scheduled in U.S. District Court in St. Paul next Friday.
“Even if we agreed with you to suspend the permit, we don’t have the power to decide that today,” Commission Chairwoman Ellen Anderson told tribal attorney Zenas Baer on Thursday.
To suspend a permit, the PUC would have to schedule hearings with witnesses, a process that could take weeks, and a possible state government shutdown starting July 1 might delay action. The commission will take up the matter again once the lawsuits have played out, Anderson said.
Baer said a decision to do nothing allows the utilities to continue to cut down trees as it prepare for construction.
The utilities have done “pre-construction” tree-cutting but likely won’t start construction until at least July 7, said Tom Bailey, an attorney representing the utilities.
The possible government shutdown also could delay construction because the utilities need the PUC to review its final plans, which it may not finish before the shutdown, he said.
The Bemidji-Grand Rapids line is one of five high-voltage transmission projects planned throughout the state by 11 utilities, including Xcel Energy of Minneapolis, and worth a total of $1.7 billion.
Reporter Leslie Brooks Suzukamo Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.