HELENA — Residents in and around Flathead Lake are asking a judge to temporarily block federal officials from transferring a hydroelectric dam in northwestern Montana to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The plaintiffs — state Sen. Bob Keenan, a Bigfork business owner; Verdell Jackson, supervisor of the Flathead Conservation District and Pointer Scenic Cruises — filed a motion in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia late Wednesday. The transfer is set to take place on Saturday.
It wasn’t clear if a judge would hold a hearing in time to delay the transfer.
The motion asks that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission be required to hold hearings to determine if the tribe and its public utility Energy Keepers Inc. have the financial and technical ability to safely operate the dam and if the transfer will be in the public interest.
“The Tribes are surprised at this lawsuit, considering that we have fulfilled all requirements to satisfy a 30-year-old contract,” the tribe said in a statement, noting the agreement to transfer the operating license to the tribe was finalized in 1985.
In 1985, the commission approved an agreement establishing the Montana Power Co. and CSKT as joint licensees, with a 50-year license. The agreement included an option for the tribe to take full ownership, management and control after 30 years, as long as they gave notice and could pay the conveyance price. The price was later set at just under $18.3 million.
The complaint argues the 1985 licensing agreement, which called for the dam to be operated for agriculture and ranching, power generation and recreational purposes, was amended several times, without public comment, to offer more protection for fish and wildlife and to address drought management.
The plaintiffs argue that if the transfer goes through, the tribes will have ownership, management and control of all 12 dams and reservoirs on the reservation, “at the expense of the reservation’s irrigation community.”
The complaint names the Federal Energy Regulatory commissioners along with top officials with the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An after-hours phone message left at the commission’s offices wasn’t immediately returned.
The plaintiffs offered not to file the complaint if the commission would hold hearings over the transfer, but they dismissed the request, attorney Lawrence Kogan said.
Kerr Dam was built on the Flathead River near Polson and completed in 1938, raising Flathead Lake by about 10 feet.