Community and environmental groups have asked a court to clarify the municipal zoning authority for NorthWestern Energy’s proposed methane gas-fired power plant near Laurel, MT. The project, sited along the Yellowstone River and across from a residential neighborhood, currently sits in zoning limbo with neither the City of Laurel nor Yellowstone County asserting zoning jurisdiction over the construction site. In the complaint, a group of concerned residents known as “Thiel Road Coalition,” Montana Environmental Information Center, and Northern Plains Resource Council argue that the City of Laurel’s zoning regulations extend to NorthWestern’s parcels. The groups will be represented by Earthjustice in the suit.
“If we can’t rely on the city or the county to stand up for us as citizens and Montanans, then we will pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and get to work,” said members of the Thiel Road Coalition. “We will not be trampled on by big business and we will hold those accountable who plan to come in and destroy our communities, our land value, our quality of life, and our environment for future generations.”
The 175-megawatt methane gas-fired power plant would impact a residential neighborhood already disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution. NorthWestern has moved forward with construction of the plant, in violation of current zoning designations and without local government oversight of the project, depriving the community the opportunity to engage in the process. If the groups’ suit is successful, residents and organizations will be provided a platform to raise concerns about the potential environmental and health impacts from the methane gas plant.
“A year ago both NorthWestern and the City of Laurel clearly agreed that the city had zoning jurisdiction over the land in question,” said Anne Hedges, policy director with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Since that time they’ve done a 180 and now pretend that no local government has zoning jurisdiction thereby shutting out community concerns over a large, loud, polluting plant on the banks of the Yellowstone River. The community deserves a voice in what happens in their neighborhood.”
Groups have repeatedly raised concerns with NorthWestern’s methane gas plant, including a challenge to the Department of Environmental Quality’s issuance of an air permit without adequate evaluation of the environmental and human health impacts. Opponents of the plant are also opposing NorthWestern’s attempt to bypass a recent court decision invalidating the state’s pre-approval statute by requesting the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) allow it to charge customers $286 million for NorthWestern to build the plant before the PSC determines whether such an investment is prudent especially compared to cheaper and more sustainable alternatives.
“NorthWestern Energy thinks they can come into our town and no one will care if they build another heavy industrial power plant,” said Priscilla Bell, member of the Northern Plains Resource Council and area resident. “Well, people do care. We want to see Laurel continue to be a community that people are proud to call home. The construction and operation of this plant in our community is not in the best interest of Laurel residents, not in the best interest of the Laurel economy, and not in the best interests of our natural surroundings. This is an attempt by a corporation to put the profits of their shareholders above the health, safety, and integrity of our community.”
“The Yellowstone County Commissioners have been no help at all in this process,” members of the Thiel Road Coalition continued. “Per one Commissioner’s admission, they have been working with NorthWestern on this power plant proposal for years prior to the application for a zone change to Laurel last year, without any notification to those most impacted. The County Commissioners have already failed our communities by not doing a complete legal pipeline review and allowing a high-pressure natural gas line to be installed under the Yellowstone River in an unprotected area. Commissioners held a meeting and made the final decision without actually reading and reviewing all the information received prior to and during the meeting. Now, County officials are sitting quietly by allowing this plant to be built without any legally required input from those they were elected to represent, Laurel area residents and all in Yellowstone County. How much more sickness and bad health do we need in this valley, this state, and this world?”
“Laurel residents deserve a say in whether this massive methane gas plant gets built in their backyards,” said Amanda Galvan, associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office. “NorthWestern has attempted to short-circuit government oversight at every turn, and, in doing so, has robbed the surrounding community most impacted by the proposed plant of a voice in this process. This suit will clarify which government entity — the City of Laurel or Yellowstone County — is in charge and allow for citizens’ concerns to be heard.”