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Fort Peck sues utility company

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POPLAR, Mont. - The Fort Peck reservation leaders are trying to charge back taxes to the Northern Border Pipeline Co. with a lawsuit filed in tribal court.

Northern Border is a partnership of Enron, Williams Energy Partners and TransCanada Pipelines that owns and operates a natural gas pipeline on the Fort Peck reservation in northeast Montana. The company's pipeline stretches across the vast reservation and the tribe for years has imposed a tax on the pipeline. But two years ago Northern Border Pipeline refused to pay the tax.

"From the pipeline completion until recently, Northern Border honored all of its obligations. In fact, the lease has been fully paid, but the company has refused to honor its tax obligations for the past two years.

"We have tried repeatedly to negotiate a resolution of all issues, but have failed," Tribal Chairman Arlyn Headdress, said.

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Headdress said the tax that Northern Border is refusing to pay represents approximately 25 percent of the tribes' total revenue. The value of the tax until the lease ends is approximately $13.8 million.

The outcome of the lawsuit could change the climate of economic development on reservations across the country.

"For the past 30 years, Congress and the executive branch have encouraged tribes to govern their own reservations and become economically self-sufficient. An important part of that process involves the right of tribes to assess reasonable taxes on non-Indian businesses operating within the boundaries of their reservations.

"Yet, today we are seeing court rulings that some companies interpret as setting aside these rights," said Reid Payton Chambers, attorney with Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry in Washington, D.C.