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Landowners sue Yellowstone County commissioners in effort to block Laurel power plant

NorthWestern Energy Laurel generating station
Posted at 8:29 AM, May 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-08 10:29:33-04

LAUREL — A NorthWestern Energy methane plant could soon take over the Laurel skyline, but not without pushback from residents.

On Monday, a lawsuit was filed by four Laurel residents who live near the plant who claim Yellowstone County commissioners intentionally cut the public out of the zoning process.

The plaintiffs are attempting to reverse Yellowstone County commissioners' approval of a new growth policy that they claim the public did not have a chance to comment on. That policy allowed county commissioners to have a say in zoning in the area, which includes the footprint of the NorthWestern Energy plant. Court documents allege that county commissioners always intended to grant NorthWestern Energy’s zoning needs for a Laurel methane plant—regardless of requirements.

NorthWestern Energy Laurel generating station
NorthWestern Energy Laurel generating station

Court documents filed Monday allege that since 2020, the City of Laurel and Yellowstone County commissioners have continuously modified a growth management policy for the city and intentionally cut out public comment, all to ensure that Northwestern Energy’s new methane plant gets built.

The methane plant has long been a topic of controversy in Laurel.

"It's agricultural land, and if it's going to be rezoned to industrial, there needs to be a public process with public comment," said Mary Fitzpatrick, a Northern Plains Resource Council member, last August.

Mary Fitzpatrick
Mary Fitzpatrick

Many who live near the new plant have been opposed to its creation since day one, including the plaintiffs.

While the plaintiffs and their attorney declined MTN's request for an interview, the lawsuit alleges no members of the public were allowed to speak during many of the county and city’s planning sessions. Court documents also state that land use maps reflecting a proposed updated growth plan were changed several times with no explanation to the public for the changes.

Yellowstone County Commissioners
Yellowstone County Commissioners

According to the lawsuit, a member of the public also pointed out that the maps presented did not show any of NorthWestern Energy’s land where the methane plant would be designated as heavy industrial.

"Here we are with the plant partially constructed, and NorthWestern Energy is just moving ahead with kind of that philosophy of asking for forgiveness rather than permission," said Cari Kimball, the executive director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, last August.

Cari Kimball
Cari Kimball

The lawsuit also accuses two of the three county commissioners of telling the public there was nothing they could do to stop the plant and accuses County Commissioner John Ostlund of appearing in a promotional video for the plant prior to the zoning decision.

MTN News reached out to Ostlund for an interview and received the following statement from Melissa Williams, an attorney for the county:

“The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office received a copy of the lawsuit regarding the Laurel Growth Policy on May 6th. We are confident that the County properly followed the law in the adoption of the growth policy. We will review the lawsuit with the Board of County Commissioners next week and will respond accordingly.”

The case is scheduled to be heard by Yellowstone County District Judge Jessica Fehr. A court date has not been set.

The plant remains under construction with a slated start date this summer. NorthWestern Energy has not said whether a lawsuit could affect the timeline.

To read more, click here.

Read the lawsuit below: