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Youth group who won landmark Montana environmental case enters NW Energy lawsuit

Plaintiffs in Held v. Montana seeking to block natural gas plant
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Posted at 8:58 PM, Dec 01, 2023

A group of Montana youths, who recently sued the state in a landmark case over climate change and won, is taking action once again.

The activists, led by Broadus native Rikki Held, have thrown their support behind another suit aimed at stopping NorthWestern Energy's gas plant under construction in Laurel.

The young people in the Held v. Montana filed the brief this week, and it may have an impact outside of Montana.

Construction continues at the new natural gas plant for now, but the group of 16 youth environmentalists who won a case against the state of Montana this past August are hoping to change that.

The brief filed in the Montana Supreme Court supports an environmental group's lawsuit, which stated the Montana Department of Environmental Quality did not do its job when granting an air quality permit. The environmental groups says the permit should be vacated for the NorthWestern Energy facility.

"It will pollute the air not just in Laurel but all the way down the valley," said Priscilla Bell, a member of Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation group.

Bell lives close to the plant and has opposed it for years.

"I thought we'd won all these battles," said Bell. "Clean air, clean water, care of the land. And here we are many decades later, still fighting the same battles."

NorthWestern sent an email statement.

"Northwestern Energy does not agree with the substantive positions taken by the 16 user plaintiffs in Held v. the state of Montana," Jo Dee Black, Northwestern spokesperson, stated. "However, we did not oppose their motion to file this amicus brief."

Construction was stopped earlier this year by a Yellowstone County district judge.

Later, the Montana Legislature passed a law stating agencies cannot consider greenhouse gas emissions in permitting decisions, which allowed the building to resume.

The youth activists believe their win in August supersedes that law.

"It's one of the strongest climate decisions we've seen," said Michael Gerrard, Columbia Law School professor.

Gerard is the faculty director of the school's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

He is already using the Held case in his curriculum.

"The Held decision has been assigned already in several law schools around the country," Gerrard said.

The professor says it may have an effect outside Montana with Hawaii, Pennsylvania and New York having similar constitutions.

"The Montana decision is also inspiring a greater movement to try to have similar amendments adopted in some other states," said Gerrard.

"We need to make this bigger than Montana," said Bell. "This is not just a Laurel event. This is Montana, the United States of America, the globe."

For now, NorthWestern expects the plant to be operational next summer.