UPDATE 05/15/2010: Yesterday, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club filed a second lawsuit protesting “potentially devastating consequences for the environment” not considered by the Land Board in making the decision to lease.
The groups said almost all the coal would go to power plants that would emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Governor Schweitzer doth protest that lawsuits at this point are “premature”. He says state officials have “in no way said they have passed all environmental muster.” Let’s wait and see. Maybe the prevailing winds will switch to the east.
On Wednesday, two environmental organizations, the Northern Plains Resource Council and the National Wildlife Federation filed suit in District Court to void the Otter Creek coal leases. The suit claims that granting the leases “constitutes an irretrievable and irreversible commitment of public resources that forecloses alternative uses of these lands.” They claim that the decision of the State Land Board to forego any environmental review prior to granting the lease to Arch Minerals violates the Montana Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider the environmental impacts of their decision and disclose those impacts to the public , “including the potentially devastating climate change impacts from adding billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from the combustion of this coal.”
The lease is claimed to be illegal under the Montana State Constitution, including article IX, which guarantees “The State and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations…“. MEPA is the principle tool by which these guarantees are enforced and it provides requirements for the disclosure of environmental impacts and ways for citizens to participate in the decision making. While holding the coal tracts for over a decade, the state has failed to perform a MEPA analysis on impacts of leasing.
The decision to approve the Otter Creek lease has environmental consequences, the full extent of which were not analyzed by the Board, and disclosed to the public before the decision to lease was made.
The suit goes on to list the many air, water, health, economic, wildlife and climate impacts of mining and burning the billion tons of Otter Creek coal, both in Montana and around the globe as well as the impacts of building the Tongue River Railroad.
“No compelling state interest is served by exempting the Otter Creek lease decision from MEPA review before irreversibly committing the state to this course of action in March.“
“Because the statute is unconstitutional, and because the Board made a decision in reliance on an unconstitutional statute and did not comply with MEPA, the Otter Creek leases were issued in violation of the Montana state constitution and statutory law and are therefore void ab initio and of no force and effect.”