PPL Asks US Supreme Court to Hear Dams Case

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – PPL Montana is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the state of Montana from seizing ownership of riverbeds and forcing rent payments, arguing other states may copy the move.

PPL Montana is fighting for relief from a state Supreme Court decision forcing it to pay $40 million in current rent, as well as damages for not paying rent for land its dams sit on from 2000 through 2007, plus even more in future rent.

The court decision means the land under the dams is like other public land that is rented out, such as to those who graze cattle or drill for oil.

PPL Montana said the state overstepped its authority and asked the nation’s high court Thursday to intervene in the case. PPL said the state’s high court was wrong in claiming Montana ownership over 500 miles of riverbeds under multiple hydropower facilities.

“This came as quite a shock, because for more than a century the riverbeds beneath those facilities have been treated as owned by private parties or the federal government,” the company wrote in its brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court only intervenes in a small number of the cases it is asked to hear.

The Montana attorney general’s office declined comment Friday.

It has argued, in a case that spent years in state courts, that the state riverbeds are part of the school trust lands.

PPL argued in its new court filing that hydropower project licensing under the Federal Power Act already required payments of substantial rents to the federal government. It asks the nation’s high court if a state is then allowed to retroactively claim ownership and charge millions in back and future rent.

PPL said the court needs to enforce “basic principles of federalism” and “prevent state court judges from claiming for the citizens who elect them ownership of state riverbeds and the economic benefits therefrom — no matter how belated the claim and no matter how otherwise settled the fact that the land belongs to private parties or the federal government.”

The state Land Board chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer is already looking at ways to spend the money and has decided it will buy more state land with it. The board is focusing on former Plum Creek Timber land, currently owned by The Nature Conservancy, as a way to generate ongoing lease revenue for the state with logging, grazing and other uses.

That decision is creating controversy of its own as some legislators argue only the Legislature can spend the money.

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