A lawsuit filed by two environmental groups asks a judge to undo the state’s lucrative deal to lease the Otter Creek coal tracts, charging that the decision runs afoul of the Montana Constitution.

The governor, an advocate of the coal deal, said he thinks the lawsuit is premature.

The state recently leased the massive coal tracts to mining giant Arch Coal Inc. for a bonus bid of $86 million — and the promise of billions more in taxes and royalties over the coming decades if the mine is developed as hoped.

But in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state District Court in Broadus, the Northern Plains Resource Council and the National Wildlife Federation argued that the Land Board failed to recognize constitutional guarantees of a clean environment when it made its decision.

The lawsuit, which alleges that the coal taken from the mine will produce carbon dioxide and lead to global warming, says the state should have undertaken a full environmental review prior to issuing the lease.

“Otter Creek may become North America’s largest coal mine,” the lawsuit reads. “Montana’s constitution does not sanction blind leadership by officials imbued with a constitutional duty to protect the environment nor does it grant the legislature authority to override fundamental constitutional rights.”

The Land Board, made up of the state’s top elected officials, including the governor, endorsed the plan in March on a split 3-2 vote after several contentious hearings.

St. Louis-based Arch Coal subsequently paid the $86 million upfront obligation as it readies plans to get a railroad in place and start environmental assessments. The company has said the coal could serve growing economies in Asia.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation ultimately take care of environmental review.

“I think maybe the timing is wrong on the lawsuit. We routinely lease land for grazing, for farming, for oil and gas, for mineral development,” he said. “The permitting is taken care of by the Montana Oil and Gas Board, DNRC and DEQ. Anyone who gets any one of these leases understands there are several steps in the process.”

Schweitzer said the Land Board, meeting next week, may discuss the lawsuit if lawyers have had a chance to review it.

The governor said Arch’s upfront bid only gives the company the exclusive right to go through the process.

“We have in no way said they have passed all environmental muster,” Schweitzer said. “What Arch has right now is the exclusive right to begin the process of applying for permits. And they have a 10-year period under which they have the right to do that.”

The lawsuit argues that the board did not consider the effect of coal mining on water and air quality, wildlife, cultural resources, or farms and ranches. The groups argue Otter Creek could become the biggest mine in the country, contribute to area pollution and ruin the landscape.

“The Land Board has no business selling off coal mining rights to out-of-state developers without first looking into what it might mean for our land and groundwater,” Mark Fix, an area rancher with Northern Plains, said in a statement. “This mine might be good for China, but it’s not good for Montana.”

(7) comments

mtbiker
mtbiker

Go Northern Plains! The Schweitzer and his toadies were in gross dereliction of their duty to uphold the state's constitution when they voted to lease the Otter Creek tracts. Let's not let Montana become the West Virginia of the Rocky Mountains!

Local Citizen
Local Citizen

"Go Northern Plains!!!!" Whats wrong with you?? All of these radical environmentalists with nothing better to do with there time (considering they have no paying jobs), are out complaining about these large coal fields we have in the Eastern part of the state that will bring large revenue to our state. However, you would like to keep our fish and animals safe (which they are already), at the sake of prosperity for our state. Take your radical views back to Cali where you can see what radical environmentalism brings...........BANKRUPTCY!!!!!!

mtbiker
mtbiker

Dear Local Citizen, You are mistaken. Northern Plains is a grassroots Montana organization composed of ranchers and farmers. And I am not from California, but Montana. To maintain a respectful debate, you should attack arguments, not people.

You argue that protecting Montana's natural heritage will bankrupt the state, and as an example, you point to California. I respectfully disagree. The natural beauty of this state produces significant revenue from people who come here to hunt, fish, ski, canoe, raft, bike, and hike. More people work at Big Sky than at Colstrip (no one comes to this state to look at strip mines and coal plants). Also, our state's heritage from ranching and farming is considerable, and ranching and farming remain pillars of our heritage and economy today. Strip mined land cannot be farmed or ranched.

In fact, you have it backwards. Irresponsible and unsustainable resource extraction only enriches out-of-state interest and impoverishes this state. Look at Butte. It was great for moneyed interests in Boston and NYC, but what has it left Montana? A lot of pollution and a disappearing town. Look also at Bannack and Virginia City, ghost towns today. But farming and ranching were here at the beginning of European settlement in Montana, and they continue today. They are sustainable enterprises.

As for California, it was not environmental protection that caused the bankruptcy, but the recent economic meltdown. That resulted from the Bush-era failure to oversee financial markets. As it is, clean energy development in California is an economic driver.

justme59601
justme59601

typical of a liberal like mtbiker to continue to blame bush from everything from warts to global warming just because their president is turning out to be a giant bust who can't seem to do anything right. keep in mind two of the people who were mainly responsible for regulation of the financial/banking industry were christopher dodd and barney frank, two senators from guess which party....democrat.

Toby
Toby

Dear mtbiker, I am Native American born in Wolf Point MT. I know your a Montana lib "there's always a few bad apples in a bunch". Your views are obvious when you bashed Bush at the end of your comment. The last two years of his term the senate and house were ruled by 'dems' so don't give me that crap. They promised back then, if you vote for them, there would be change. Furthermore, you comment about Butte in selfish liberal way, I have an uncle killed in the Butte mines. Hard working Montana Americans fed their families, and the metals from Butte saved a lot of Innocent lives overseas during the war. Be fair when you comment. There are scars left behind from a different time, with different science and regulations, but because of Butte Montana is what it is, and as for your wonderful president I wouldn't want him balancing my checkbook.

montanatom1950
montanatom1950

[quote]mtbiker said: "Dear Local Citizen, You are mistaken. Northern Plains is a grassroots Montana organization composed of ranchers and farmers. And I am not from California, but Montana...................Mtbiker: You have it dead right !! I am a Helena Native but spent a few years working and going to school in eastern Montana. I love that area and go back to visit a couple times a year. It would break my heart to see Eastern Montana turned into a West Virginia like waste land. I do believe I am going to contribute to the Northern Plains Resource Council. They are standing tall with a history of results in protecting traditional ranching and farming interests in that area.

Local Citizen
Local Citizen

mtbiker, Montana is a state built on farming/ranching.......and mining. Yes, I agree that farming and ranching are sustainable, and I have friends that do both in the state. However, our state, along with Wyoming, has a large quantity of coal seams, and they will bring in large amounts of revenues to our state during this economic crisis, and while the country is in such need for coal/energy. If we listened to radical environmentalists, the state would restrict all types of mining and shortly after, we would be in the food line with California. The sad thing is California is rich in minerals and off shore oil, but they would like to save those resources for later generations, while they go hungry. By the way, this Northern Plains group is a lot like Acorn, hiding behind a mask, when they are not a bunch of hard working Montana farmers and ranchers, but yet a liberal left wing radical group, that protests and boycotts during the day, while the true farmers and ranchers..............oh yah, they are farming and ranching.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.