Montana Environmental Information Center v. Montana Department of Environmental Quality

Energy Coal and gas power plants

In Montana Environmental, Bull Mountain Development Company proposed to build a coal-fired power plant near a Class I area, which included parks, wilderness areas, and an Indian reservation. Id. at 512. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the federal land manager (FLM), which is directly responsible for managing a Class I area, determined that the proposed coal-fired plant would adversely impact the visibility of a Class I area.

The Montana statute implementing the CAA allows a power company to demonstrate that the proposed source’s emissions would have no adverse impact on the air-quality of the Class I area. Id. at 512. If the FLM concurs with the demonstration, the MDEQ may issue a permit, provided that applicable requirements are otherwise met. Id. In this case, the power company conducted its own analysis and asserted that on a majority of the days that the plant would adversely impact the Class I area when weather conditions such as rain, snow or fog would cause visibility impairment naturally. Id at 513. Thus, it wouldn’t matter if emissions would affect visibility because visibility would already be impaired by natural conditions. Id.

The FLM agreed and withdrew its determination that the coal-fired power plant would adversely affect the Class I area. Id. The MDEQ deferred to FLM’s opinion and granted the permit. Id. The Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) brought suit, claiming that the MDEQ “improperly deferred to the [FLM’s] opinion regarding visibility impacts rather than reaching its own independent assessment of whether the proposed project would result in visibility impacts. ” Id. at 514. The court agreed. Id. Even though the FLM’s opinion carries weight in the overall determination of whether to grant a permit, MDEQ’s own regulations require it to make an independent inquiry rather than simply defer to the FLM’s findings. Id. at 514-515. Therefore, the permit could not be granted unless additional findings were made that the emissions from the proposed project would not adversely impact the Class I area. Id. at 515.