A Yellowstone County judge has revoked the permit that the state issued for a gas plant NorthWestern Energy is building in Laurel, effectively halting construction of the project.
The ruling Thursday comes almost a year after litigants presented arguments to District Court Judge Michael Moses on the question of the adequacy of the environmental analysis associated with the 175-megawatt plant’s operation.
In their initial October 2021 filing, Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club argued that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit to NorthWestern without fully evaluating the plant’s potential to degrade air quality, contaminate the Yellowstone River and increase the greenhouse gas pollution that’s contributing to climate change. The DEQ and NorthWestern Energy countered that the state completed all of the analysis required by Montana statute and that the permit was issued lawfully.
Moses disagreed with those assertions, effectively revoking NorthWestern’s air quality permit and sending the state back to the drawing board to further analyze the project’s lighting- and greenhouse gas-related impacts.
The plaintiffs are seeking an environmental impact statement, a more thorough look at anticipated impacts than the 20-page environmental assessment that DEQ used to issue the air quality permit. (In August of 2021, DEQ declined to require an EIS, concluding that the project will not significantly impact the environment.)
Moses sided with the plaintiffs regarding the magnitude of the project.
“This project is one of NorthWestern Energy’s largest projects in Montana,” Moses wrote in his order. “It is up wind of the largest city in Montana. It will dump nearly 770,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year into the air. The pristine Yellowstone River is adjacent to the project. This project will have a life of more than 30 years. That amounts to in excess of 23,100,000 tons of greenhouse gases emissions directly impacting the largest city in Montana that is less than 15 miles down wind. To most Montanans who clearly understand their fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, this is a significant project.”
The plant, which has been under construction for a year, is on a 36-acre parcel of largely agricultural land. It’s located about 300 feet from the banks of the Yellowstone River and across the river from a residential neighborhood.
A spokesperson from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said the agency is reviewing the order and does not have a comment on the ruling at this time.
Laurel resident Steve Krum cheered the court’s decision in a press release about the ruling.
“We are very concerned that this project will harm people who live near the proposed plant,” said Krum, a retired refinery employee. “Every time we have raised concerns about the impacts this plant will have on the quality of life of the neighbors and the Yellowstone River, those concerns have been dismissed. We appreciate that our concerns finally got a fair shake in court.”
In a Friday afternoon press release, NorthWestern Energy, the shareholder-owned utility company that serves approximately two-thirds of Montana’s electricity and natural gas customers, vowed to appeal the ruling.
“Although the District Court found two limited issues with the Montana DEQ’s analysis, the court unfortunately took the extreme step to vacate the air permit,” NorthWestern’s statement reads. “NorthWestern will [fulfill] its commitment to safe and reliable energy service for our Montana customers by seeking an immediate stay and will appeal the decision.”
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