Today's decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the public's legal right to challenge a political appointee's approval of the proposed power plant.
That approval, by Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson, came despite warnings by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that pollution from the new plant will restrict visibility in Yellowstone and the U.L. Bend Wilderness Area in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. When conservationists challenged Manson's approval, a federal judge dismissed their claims without a hearing on the merits.
"This decision is a victory for clean air and good science in our National Parks," said Earthjustice lawyer Doug Honnold, one of the attorneys who represented conservationists in the appeal. "Today's ruling means that the courthouse doors are not closed to members of the public who want to make sure that professionalism and science take precedence over politics in the National Parks."
"The fundamental issue in this case is whether the National Park Service can maintain professional integrity and judgment in the face of political meddling," added Tony Jewett of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Given that the Park Service is charged with protecting our National Parks for future generations, professionalism, science and good judgment have to take precedence over politics."
The controversy involved in today's ruling began in December 2002, when air experts at the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the proposed Roundup plant would be "a significant contributor" to adverse visibility impacts "severe in both frequency and magnitude" in Yellowstone and UL Bend. Accordingly, the Interior Department issued a formal finding of "adverse impact" under the Clean Air Act.
While this "adverse impact" finding should have legally required Roundup to reduce or offset its emissions, Manson and other political officials at the Interior Department immediately agreed to review the finding in response to complaints from the Roundup developer. Agency air experts undertook further analysis and again concluded that pollution from Roundup would impair visibility at Yellowstone and UL Bend.
Nevertheless, after a conference call with the power company, Manson sent a letter withdrawing the adverse impact finding and allowing the project to proceed as planned.
"The bottom line is that the Bush administration officials involved in this case chose to favor the interests of polluters over the interests of people who love our National Parks," said Bob Ekey of The Wilderness Society. "This is yet another example of this administration ignoring or rewriting science at the expense of our National Parks and wilderness areas."
"Specialists from the Park Service outlined pollution-control measures for the new plant but none of those ideas went any further because the administration ignored sound science in favor of special interests," added Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Today's ruling gives us an opportunity to make sure clean air is not sacrificed in the rush to build the Roundup plant."
As a result of today's ruling, the conservationists' legal challenge will return to a federal district court for a hearing on the merits of the Interior Department's action. Plaintiffs in the case are the National Parks Conservation Association, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, and Jonathan Proctor.