Manitoba Hydro moves to purchase land for $350M transmission line before approval

A group of landowners in the southeastern part of the province say Manitoba Hydro is trying to bribe them to overcome opposition to a proposed power line running along their properties to Minnesota.

Clean Environment Commission into Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project started May 8, ends June 8

The $350-million Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project would see the construction of a power line as part of a 308-megawatt deal with the Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

A group of landowners in the southeastern part of the province say Manitoba Hydro is trying to bribe them to overcome opposition to a proposed power line in the area, despite the fact the route hasn't been approved.

"Hydro's been doing a number of things that really presume that they're going to get exactly what they want, rather than waiting to actually get permission and then to start to talk to landowners," said Kevin Toyne, a lawyer representing the Southeast Stakeholders Coalition.

But Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said the Crown corporation isn't doing anything wrong.

"We are acquiring voluntary easements to allow us [to] begin construction as quickly as possible once all federal and provincial approvals are received," Owen said in a statement. "This may help us avoid potential delays to the project."

The Southeast Stakeholders Coalition represents more than 120 landowners in the rural municipality of Taché and around La Broquerie, Man.

The group raised concerns at a Clean Environment Commission hearing into the $350-million Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project, a power line that has been in the works for years as part of a 308-megawatt power deal with the Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service.

The proposed route would run from Dorsey Station, northwest of Winnipeg, to the Manitoba-Minnesota border.

The Manitoba government approved the need for a project of its kind in conjunction with a review from the Public Utilities Board in 2014.

'Very concerned'

Toyne said Hydro is offering landowners along the proposed route 50 per cent of the land value up front in exchange for easement agreements allowing the power line to be built, as opposed to the standard $225.

"They're very concerned about it," he said. "They see it as Hydro not only treating the process like it's a rubber stamp, but as a way to try to reduce opposition along the proposed right-of-way."

Owen said as part Hydro's compensation policy, it pays 150 per cent above market value, and affected landowners who agree to an easement will get paid in full — whether or not the route is approved. 

Landowners are under "no obligation or pressure" to agree to the early purchase of their land, Owen said.

"This is a normal practice in the utility industry and the CEC [Clean Environment Commission] is aware," Owen said, adding compensation talks are part of the broader engagement process with landowners. 

"Manitoba Hydro is fully ... committed to providing information on the project, the regulatory process and providing an outlet should landowners have questions. Each landowner has a point of contact within Manitoba Hydro that will remain throughout the [transmission line] project."

Toyne said he's aware of six people who have signed the agreements so far, based on his last update from Hydro a month ago.

Move route east, coalition says

The Clean Environment Commission hearings began on May 8 and are set to continue until June 8.

Toyne said the process gives his clients tools and mechanisms to get information from Hydro and to put forward their own evidence and perspectives.

"I've certainly got no doubt that the commission is going to take all of that very seriously and into account at the end of the day," Toyne said. "But it's too early to predict what the commission's final decision will be."

Toyne said his clients want Hydro to move the middle portion of the line's route farther east, avoiding many of the affected landowners in Taché and La Broquerie.

"It may not affect fewer landowners in one sense, but it would certainly affect fewer people with homes closer to the transmission line," he said.

"What we're suggesting is that the commission should send Hydro back to the drawing board and come up with a more appropriate route, and we've got a basic proposal for what that would be, but if they're not prepared to do that, that they send Hydro back to the drawing board just for the middle part of the route."

Owen stressed that Hydro won't begin working on the project until receiving the green light from the federal and provincial governments.

The Clean Environment Commission panel has 90 days after the completion of the hearing to present a report with recommendations to the province.

With files from Susan Magas