Great Falls, MT
Late last week, a federal judge approved a stipulation by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) not to “take any action to apply, effectuate, or enforce the provisions of HB 576 or SB 392” for seven months. The laws passed by the Montana Legislature earlier this year, which weaken water and environmental protections from coal mining, claimed to go into effect immediately. The Legislature even made HB 576 retroactive, so that changes to water quality protections would apply to currently pending cases. Groups filed suit in Montana District Court in early June, seeking an injunction to prevent the state from giving the new laws effect until they are properly reviewed by federal authorities with ample opportunity for public comment.
“These laws fall well short of what is required under the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Act, and so we are happy to see that the Montana DEQ has agreed to not enforce these laws until the federal review occurs,” stated Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “As the coal industry continues to decline across the nation, it’s critical that we assure Montana’s water is fully protected.”
“It was obvious when the Legislature passed these laws that their provisions violated federal law and were unenforceable,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office. “But the Montana Legislature was apparently intent to do the bidding of coal industry lobbyists, to the detriment of Montanans and our environment. This stipulated order will provide the public and federal agencies the chance to properly review and reject these changes that weaken Montana’s protections of clean water and public oversight.”
“When coal companies write the laws, the public loses,” said Nathaniel Shoaff, senior attorney with Sierra Club. “These provisions fall well short of federal protections. Congress expressly set out a key oversight role for the public in preserving lands and waters from the threat of coal mining pollution. Coal companies may not like it, but they still have to follow the rules.”
“Montana is not above the law,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “While we’re pleased the Department of Environmental Quality has agreed to not implement these unfortunate rollbacks to the state’s coal mining rules, the reality is they’re completely at odds with federal law and need to be repealed completely.”
“These were sloppy and careless bills by the Legislature that caused this whole mess and infringed on our rights as Montanans,” stated Rich Liebert, retired Army Lt. Colonel, cattle rancher and board president of Citizens for Clean Energy. “The Legislature needs to remember the old rule to ‘measure twice and cut once.’”
Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Citizens for Clean Energy, and Montana Environmental Information Center in the suit.