Alanna Madden

(CN) — Environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday to halt Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality from enforcing two recent laws that amend the state’s federally approved program for regulating coal mining.

The lawsuit led by Montana Environmental Information Center challenges the legality of the department’s ability to enforce House Bill 576 and Senate Bill 392, two laws the plaintiffs claim violate the Montana Strip and Underground Mine Reclamation Act under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act regulates the environmental effects of coal mining by requiring states to develop and administer regulatory programs to meet federal standards. Consistent with said law, Montana’s regulatory policy administers several provisions to protect the environment from degradation — one of which requires mining permit applications to determine whether a project would violate the state’s water quality standards.

Another provision, the plaintiffs note, is that Montana’s policy awards attorney’s fees to encourage public participation in challenging permitting decisions.

The two laws signed by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte in May change Montana’s policy to make it “less protective and less effective than corresponding provisions of the Surface Mining Act,” wrote the center in its complaint, adding that the Surface Mining Act prohibits proposed changes to a state program from becoming effective until they are reviewed and approved by federal agencies.

Both bills aim to make their proposed changes effective immediately, the plaintiffs added — changes like HB 576’s removal of the standard to define “material damage” to water quality as any violation of water quality standard.

The House bill — sponsored by Representative Rhonda Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, Montana — also authorizes the Department of Environmental Quality to approve applications without understanding how ground or surface water quality would be affected and allows strip and underground coal mines to violate water quality standards so long as violations are not continuous or long-term.

The bill supported by mining companies and NorthWestern Energy also allows proposed changes to retroactively apply to existing litigation, complicating current challenges to the state’s mining permits.

Meanwhile, SB 392 — sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Great Falls, Montana — removes the state’s attorney’s fee provision, forcing those who unsuccessfully challenge mining projects to pay out of pocket. This provision, too, can retroactively apply to existing litigation.

The plaintiffs — who include the Sierra Club, Wildearth Guardians and Citizens for Clean Energy — wrote that the effectiveness of HB 576 immediately threatens their legal interests in existing cases within the Montana Supreme Court, the state’s district court and a Montana administrative board.

“Plaintiffs’ legal interest in existing cases will be protected if defendants are enjoined from applying, effectuating, or enforcing the provisions of House Bill 576 until they are reviewed by public and federal agencies,” the plaintiffs wrote.

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