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Kalispel Tribe launches electric utility to serve Northern Quest complex in Airway Heights

Curt Holmes, a Kalispel Tribe council member, left, introduces Deane Osterman, the tribe’s executive director of natural resources, during Tuesday’s announcement that the tribe has formed its own electric utility to serve the Northern Quest Resort and Casino complex in Airway Heights. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Curt Holmes, a Kalispel Tribe council member, left, introduces Deane Osterman, the tribe’s executive director of natural resources, during Tuesday’s announcement that the tribe has formed its own electric utility to serve the Northern Quest Resort and Casino complex in Airway Heights. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians has created its own electric utility to serve its expanding casino-hotel complex in Airway Heights.

The move will help the tribe reduce its monthly power bill at Northern Quest Resort and Casino and chart is own economic destiny, officials said Tuesday.

“We just paid the first bill two weeks ago,” said Ray Pierre III, vice chairman of the 480-member Kalispel Tribe. “It’s another exercise in tribal sovereignty.”

Kalispel Tribe Utilities is organized as a public utility district. It purchases wholesale power from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, sets its rates and delivers the electricity. The utility will serve the tribe’s 300-acre holdings in Airway Heights, including future companies that locate near the casino.

The utility will be a business recruitment tool for the tribe, which will be able to offer competitive rates and power generated mostly from hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River and its tributaries.

The Kalispel Tribe’s relationship with dams is a complex one, acknowledged Curt Holmes, a tribal council member and the tribe’s executive director of public and government affairs.

“Our tribe has been heavily impacted by hydroelectric development,” he said.

While the Kalispel Tribe has benefited from the Northwest’s cheap electric rates, it also lost important cultural areas along the Pend Oreille River and other rivers to dam construction, Holmes said. Traditional fisheries also were affected.

Through the operation of a public utility district, the tribe will be able to bring its values of environmental stewardship to the region’s energy discussions while supporting jobs and economic development, Holmes said.

The Kalispels are the 12th U.S. tribe to operate its own utility, and the fourth tribe in the Northwest.

“The creation of a new utility is a rare event,” said Elliot Mainzer, BPA’s administrator, who attended a ceremony Tuesday at Northern Quest.

Only nine new public utilities have formed in BPA’s service territory over the past 68 years, Mainzer said. Prospective utilities must demonstrate that they’re prepared to handle billing and delivery services and take care of system operations and maintenance.

The Kalispel Tribe spent about 10 years working toward the utility’s creation. BPA signed off in late August and utility service started Oct. 1.

Avista Utilities and Inland Power and Light formerly supplied electricity to the tribe’s Airway Heights acreage. Both utilities supported the tribe’s effort to start its own electric utility and shared their expertise, Holmes said.

In the future, the Kalispel Tribe could consider generating some of its own electricity or expanding service to parts of its reservation in northeast Washington, he said.

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