BILLINGS – A court ruling released Monday gives environmentalists the green light to press forward with their challenge of Montana’s lease of 587 million tons of state-owned coal to a St. Louis company.
District Judge Joe Hegel rejected an attempt by the state and Arch Coal Inc. to dismiss lawsuits brought last year by four environmental groups.
Under a deal approved by the state Land Board last March, Arch bought the lease on the undeveloped Otter Creek coal reserves near Ashland for $86 million and future royalties.
Four environmental groups later sued, claiming the sale should have been reviewed under the Montana Environmental Policy Act.
Attorneys for Arch and the state had argued such a review must be done before mining, not at the leasing stage. But Hegel said environmentalists had made a reasonable claim — that waiting until a mining application comes in could be too late to protect the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.
The state’s reasoning, Hegel wrote, “would allow the Land Board to convert public property rights to private property rights, stripping away its special protections before even considering possible environmental consequences.”
The state-owned coal is interspersed with privately owned parcels that also have been leased by Arch. Combined, the tracts contain about 1.2 billion tons of coal that Arch plans to mine for shipment to domestic and overseas utilities.
Kevin O’Brien, a spokesman for Attorney General Steve Bullock, said his office was reviewing Hegel’s ruling.
Plaintiffs in the case are the Northern Plains Resource Council, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center.
The groups say almost all the coal from Otter Creek would go to power plants that would emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Mark Fix, a southeastern Montana rancher and past chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said in a statement that Hegel’s decision would protect the Otter Creek Valley from “the intense impact of mining.”
“The citizens of southeastern Montana should not have to bear the impacts of coal mining, especially if this coal is going to Asia,” said Fix, a rancher whose property would be bisected by a railroad proposed to serve Otter Creek.
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