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Construction stops on natural gas plant in Laurel; workers laid off

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Posted at 8:27 PM, Apr 18, 2023

LAUREL - Lawmakers in Helena are moving closer to passing new legislation that supporters say would get construction of the NorthWestern Energy gas plant in Laurel moving again.

That construction was recently halted after Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses revoked the plant's permit, saying the Montana Department of Environmental Quality failed to fully evaluate the plant's impact on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

In response to the court, House Bill 971 has made it through the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

The bill states that an environmental review may not include an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions are corresponding impacts to the state are beyond its borders.

"Montana has not enacted carbon regulations," said Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton. "Yet despite the clear direction, the court has decided that MEPA (Montana Environmental Policy Act) is now a tool for regulation of carbon."

Meanwhile, construction at the plant has all been halted, save for minor work in compliance with the judge's order.

About 110 workers were laid off on Tuesday. The plant's union says about 50 employees now remain.

"Nobody likes to be laid off," said Jerry Jefferies, Boilermakers Local 11 president. "It's an impact on their families. It's an impact on the community. And it's depressing."

Jeffries is also a union steward and says crews immediately stopped work on installing 18 smokestacks and 18 natural gas motors.

"We are demobilizing," Jefferies said. "Putting things away. No construction going on or taking things down, putting them away, get them out of the weather so that they don't get damaged. Those things that should have been installed."

Meanwhile, there are some nearby neighbors that are pleased that construction has stopped.

"I'm concerned about Laurel," said Steve Krum. "I'm concerned about the neighborhood south of the river. And I'm concerned about everyone who's downwind. Today the wind's in my back. So it's the people southeast the fear is gonna get it."

Krum added that greenhouse gases need to be evaluated and not ignored.

"In the DEQ permits, they fail to discuss the real hazards of the permit, which they probably should have," he said.

A NorthWestern official said in a statement to MTN News that the delay in construction is hurting Montana energy customers and the local and state economy.

"The Yellowstone County Generating Station was permitted based on defined criteria," NorthWestern Energy Vice President Supply/Montana Government Affairs John Hines said in a Tuesday night prepared statement. "The permitting process was followed. It is in the best interest of our customers and Montana to resolve this matter quickly.”