In May, RUS announced it would fund 85 percent of the Highwood Generating Station near Great Falls, Montana, at an estimated cost of $600 million and rising. While affordable wind power is currently available to supply the modest electricity needs of prospective consumers in eastern Montana, RUS ignored all renewable energy alternatives. Instead, it decided to fund an old-technology coal plant, which will generate more than six times the amount of power needed by residents in the area.
"Building a coal plant is the opposite of rural development," said Rich Liebert, a retired army lieutenant colonel who is a farmer and rancher in the area of the proposed coal plant and also chair of Citizens for Clean Energy. "We've been hard hit by drought, and it's only going to get worse for farmers as global warming makes it hotter and drier. The Rural Utilities Service is supposed to have agricultural interests at heart, but instead of promoting clean renewable energy that directly benefits local agriculture, it's promoting coal," Liebert said.
Ironically, in joining the coal rush, RUS is defying direction from the White House, which has clearly stated that new coal plants should be financed by private investors, not federal agencies.
With today's lawsuit, the Montana Environment Information Center, Citizens for Clean Energy, and Sierra Club are aiming to compel RUS to take a hard look at the environmental harms caused by new coal plants before it commits billions of taxpayer dollars to under-writing these risky investments.
Pat Gallagher, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club, which is challenging coal plants around the country said, "The federal government is preparing to invest in a very bleak future. These new coal plants will emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year, and at the same time they will eat up the market for clean renewable energy. RUS needs to consider the big picture before it makes construction of all of these new plants possible."
As Anne Hedges, Program Director for Montana Environmental Information Center, stressed, "We hear a lot of talk about the low cost of coal, but the environmental costs of coal are terribly high. In addition to climate change, you have to worry about dangerous air pollution and water contamination from millions of tons of toxic coal combustion waste."
In the case of the Highwood plant, there is yet another major concern. The plant would be built on top of a National Historic Landmark site, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped during their arduous trek around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. It is one of few remaining sites that has been preserved in its natural condition, and according to a report recently released by the National Park Service, its destruction would represent "an irreparable loss to the national heritage of our country."
"This is the kind of needlessly destructive project that makes you think there ought to be a law against it, and in fact there is," said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with Earthjustice. "The federal government is required to seek out options to protect air and water and historic resources, and RUS is not living up to that responsibility. We've gone to court to make sure that taxpayers do not bear the burden of a misguided investment in dirty coal plants."
Read the complaint (PDF)