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Keep our utilities accountable to the people

by Kevin Hamm
| January 9, 2022 12:00 AM

The Public Service Commission and Northwestern Energy (NWE), have made news, again, and yet again, for something done to — and not for — Montana. In 2014, NWE acquired the Hegben Dam from Pennsylvania Power and Light and with that purchase came an understanding NWE would maintain the dam and its infrastructure.

We now know that NWE has been negligent in their maintenance of the Hegben Dam, causing the deaths of untold numbers of fish as water flow into the Madison River below the dam went from 650 cubic feet per second (cfs) to merely 195 cfs. This massive decrease was discovered by a fisherman who then went to a local shop where concerned citizens spent hours trying to reach anyone at NWE — a terrible response from any company.

Not only are many fish dead, but their eggs were exposed to air and are danger of dying as well. A catastrophe is putting it lightly.

Now, imagine that it happened with temperatures diving below zero for a few days. This issue could affect not only the stream and the wildlife in it, it could also cause issues with the lake behind the dam and with the machinery in the dam. Break those generators or even put them in a situation where they need to be shut down immediately and it could collapse our energy grid, depriving thousands of necessary to live power.

What happened in Texas last winter just proves how vigilant and long-range thinking our public utilities need to be everyday. Realize that it’s not just homes that would have issues, but civic water systems require pumps to work when they don’t you end up with frozen water mains — which could then burst, taking months and millions to repair.

All this is on top of the impending disaster that comes from not planning ahead and having the PSC tell ratepayers that NWE is going to charge them between 47% and 62% more for natural gas this winter because of rising costs. Part of planning for a public utility is to mitigate those expenses, and the PSC has allowed NWE to fail the people of Montana on this, too. It’s not like NWE doesn’t know how to use storage facilities and futures pricing, they just didn’t for some reason, and the PSC is allowing them to pass that cost on directly to us all.

And for the latest, we discover that the Denton fire was caused by failing NWE powerlines. How many more catastrophes do we need before this gets the attention it deserves?

The PSC is supposed to hold our utilities to the highest standard and ensure delivery to Montanans effectively, efficiently, affordably, and safely — not to make headlines about infighting and staffing blowups.

It’s time we have representation on the PSC that will do the job and keep our utilities accountable to the people. With my years of experience and leadership in communities around the state, I am prepared to do the job Montanans, our ecosystems, and our home budgets need the PSC to be doing every day.

Kevin Hamm is a candidate for Public Service Commission, District 5

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