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Lawsuit claims Montana residents' rights violated by state

Two Billings residents are plaintiffs
Katie Harrison picking up non-biodegradable trash
Posted at 6:20 PM, Dec 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-29 10:56:46-05

BILLINGS — A Bozeman-based conservation organization is joined by nine Montanans in a legal battle with the state, arguing over House Bill 407, which bans citizens and local governments from regulating single-use plastic. Two of the nine Montanans are Billings residents.

"Plastics are directly harming people's health," said Katie Harrison, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, on Thursday.

Katie Harrison
Katie Harrison

Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, a Bozeman-based nonprofit conservation organization, along with nine Montanans, filed suit against the state in late November.

“(House Bill) 407 is considered the ban on bans,” Harrison said. "Unfortunately, it is at the point where we literally have to take matters into our own hands to stop this."

The plaintiffs are challenging House Bill 407, a law passed in 2021 that bans citizens and local governments from regulating single-use plastics, stating it infringes on their constitutional rights.

"This bill is simply saying that certain prohibitions on the products we all use should be done on a statewide basis so that consumers and businesses have one standard that covers the entire state,” said Montana Senator Mark Noland (R-Bigfork), who sponsored the bill, in 2021.

Mark Noland in 2021
Mark Noland in 2021

Noland argued the bill is aimed at protecting small businesses.

"We’ve all seen that the largest companies had their best year ever," Noland said. "But this is not the case with our small business. So this is a small business bill. Please vote yes."

The two Billings plaintiffs are Katie Harrison of SustainaBillings and outgoing city councilman Danny Choriki.

"(HB 407 is) in direct contradiction to the Montana state constitution, where it very explicitly says we have the right to home rule," Choriki said. "Which means that local governments, unless it’s something really big, have a choice to do, or what they think they should do, in order to fix the problem."

Danny Choriki
Danny Choriki

In September 2022, MTN News brought you a story with Harrison on her efforts to make Montana more green as she hosted an event on the Billings Southside highlighting sustainable goods.

“Billings Regional Landfill is the largest landfill in Montana and it receives over 350,000 tons of garbage every year from five different counties," Harrison said. "So the Billings landfill doesn’t just serve Billings, it serves five entire counties in Montana. At the rate that it’s at, it is going to be 100% full by 2050."

This January, MTN followed up with Harrison on her efforts to eliminate single-use plastics in the Magic City. That’s when she teamed up with Choriki and Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, challenging HB 407.

Harrison and Choriki
Harrison and Choriki

"We have real problems that we’re facing and the Montana state legislature has gotten in the way of dealing with them,” Choriki said.

According to Cottonwood, in 2017, a survey of 72 sites in the Gallatin River Watershed was conducted to determine the presence of microplastics. 57% of the sites were found to be contaminated. Then in 2019, 50 fishing access sites across the state were surveyed. 33 of those sites were contaminated. Last year, 12 locations in Flathead Lake were surveyed and all 12 locations were found to be contaminated.

"(Microplastics) will definitely break down into tiny pieces. But that’s not the same as biodegrading," Harrison said. "It is not a biological product so it will not biodegrade. It will break down into tiny, tiny pieces."

The original complaint asked the Lewis and Clark District Court to strike down HB 407, stating it strips plaintiffs of their constitutional rights to pass local ballot initiatives.

Page one of two of the complaint
Page one of two of the complaint

The group served a copy of the complaint to Montana Attorney General Anthony Knudsen, triggering a 42-day window for the state to respond. According to a spokesperson from Cottonwood, the law center has yet to hear back. The state has until Jan. 12 to respond.

“150 people are not going to be experts on everything. They need to listen to the experts,” Choriki said.

While they wait to hear back, Harrison and Choriki are working to spread the message, hoping that it sticks.

"They’re finding microplastics everywhere. This is a real issue," Harrison said. "If you care about Montana, you should care about this issue."

To learn more about the push to ban single-use plastics in Billings, click here.