Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) A large natural-gas fired power plant that appeared to be on a fast track for construction may end up being halted after a Yellowstone County judge said permits issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality did not adequately consider the environmental and lighting impacts of the large project.

Judge Michael G. Moses ruled that the DEQ didn’t perform an environmental impact analysis and had dismissed concerns about the air quality and millions of tons of carbon dioxide the plant would produce. He also ruled that the department failed to adequately analyze the lighting of the plant.

Construction on the Laurel Generation Station has already begun, even though litigation over the plant began before the first shovel of dirt was turned. Earthjustice and the Montana Environmental Center had challenged the department’s analysis of the environmental impacts, and said the department had followed the Montana Environmental Protection Act, which Moses partially agreed with.

The groups challenging the plant’s permitting also argued that the plant’s construction violated the Montana Constitution’s provision of a clean and healthful environment. Moses, in his 35-page ruling issued Thursday afternoon, said that the constitutional issues raised by the groups were not yet legally ripe for decision, and set them aside until after the analyses that are required.

His ruling means that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality will have to go back and perform assessments of the carbon dioxide and the lighting before a permit may be issued.

The challenge before Moses is just one of the legal hurdles that could possibly upend or delay the project. Groups of residents have also raised questions about the zoning of the land, whether Laurel or Yellowstone County have the jurisdiction for zoning.

Questions and a request for comment sent to NorthWestern Energy were not immediately returned on Thursday. The company has said previously that the Laurel Generation Station would be online sometime in 2024.

The plans for the plant call for 18 reciprocal internal combustion engines that would be able to produce as much as 175-megawatts – energy that NorthWestern claims is much needed to serve the largest county in the state, including its three refineries. The plant is located adjacent to a water treatment plant for the City of Laurel, and nearby the CHS refinery.

Moses ruled that the DEQ gave short shrift to concerns raised by residents and groups, and didn’t follow the MEPA, which is the law that supports the constitutional provision for a clean environment.

“DEQ granted the air permit … that dismissed some of the plant’s most troubling impacts with minimal analysis, improperly deferred others for future consideration and overlooked some harm entirely,” the judge said in the decision.

He said that the DEQ failed to fully address concerns relating to 769,706 tons of carbon dioxide that the plant will produce every year, the annual equivalent of 167,327 passenger vehicles.

While the plaintiff groups in the case challenged a number of aspects of the plant, Moses did rule that the State Land Board had properly approved a pipeline permit and that although the Laurel Generation Station will produce some sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain, that the DEQ had justified its decision properly, too.

But, Moses said that the DEQ failed to look at the impacts of the greenhouse gases on Montana. In his ruling, he said the DEQ wrote off the consideration because state law said it cannot consider a project’s impact beyond the state border.

“Here, the plain language (of Montana law) precludes agency MEPA review of environmental impacts that are ‘beyond Montana’s borders,’ but it does not absolve DEQ of its MEPA obligation to evaluate a project’s environmental impacts within Montana. DEQ misinterprets the statute. They must take a hard look at the greenhouse gas effects of this project as it relates to the impacts within the Montana borders. They did not take any sort of look at the impacts because of their misinterpretation of the statute.”

Because the project’s anticipated lifespan is more than 30 years, Moses calculated the carbon dioxide emissions to be more than 23.1 million tons “directly impacting the largest city in Montana that is less than 15 miles down wind.”

Moses’ ruling also orders the DEQ to look at the lighting impacts which must also be considered as part of the permitting process.

“DEQ failed to take a ‘hard look’ at the lighting emissions thus far their findings on this issue are arbitrary and capricious,” he said.

Citizens who have been fighting against the project for several years said they feel like they’ve finally been heard.

“For too long it’s felt like a David versus Goliath battle. I’m so tired of the government and NorthWestern ignoring us. We live here. We have raised concerns time and time again about the impacts of this plant,” said Carah Ronan, farmer, small business owner and member of Thiel Road Coalition. “When the government breaks the law and refuses to listen to the folks who live in the area, we have nowhere else to turn but the courts. We are thankful that the courts are willing to side with average Montanans who are just concerned about their health, property, businesses, and future generations.”