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.”