In 2018, the Park County Environmental Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed a Motion for Vacatur of Exploration License against the State of Montana. The two environmental advocacy groups argued the 2011 Legislature’s amendment to the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), §75-l-201(6)(c) and (d) were unconstitutional and Lucky Mineral’s exploration license issued by the State should be vacated. The groups argued the amendments violate Montana’s Constitutional obligation to provide protection of theenvironment and infringe on the Plaintiffs’ rights to a clean and health environment.
Plaintiffs Arguments and Actions
The Park County Environmental Council and Greater Yellowstone Coalition relied the Supreme Court of Montana's decision, Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) v. Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), 1999 MT 248, 296 Mont. 207, 988 P.2d 1236 (2019). The holding of that case said that any statute or rule that impacts rights to a clean and healthful environment must be strictly scrutinized. In order to survive scrutiny, the State must establish a compelling state interest. To establish a compelling interest, the State must show “some interest of the highest order” or “the gravest abuse endangering a paramount government interest.” The Plaintiffs argued the amendments did not serve any compelling State interest including the potential to stimulate industrial development in the State. The Plaintiffs argued industrial development in the State did not justify eliminating public remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources under the Montana Constitution.
Plaintiffs stated the amendments also violate the Plaintiffs’ constitutional right to participate meaningfully in the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) decision-making process prior to a final decision being reached by the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE). They argued one of the MEPA’s purposes is to ensure the public is informed of “potential state actions” in Montana. However, they stated the public has no opportunity to participate in the DEQ’s new decision because the decisions would be fully implemented before a new decision-making process can occur.
The Plaintiffs sought an Order vacating Lucky Minerals' exploration license. They argued the vacatur is the normal remedy for an agency action that fails to abide by the MEPA and that the vacatur was necessary so the DEQ can consider the environmental impacts of Lucky Minerals’ activities before environmental impacts occurred.
Lucky Mineral’s Appellate Arguments
Lucky Minerals intervened in the case to protect its rights. They argued the legislative acts should not to be declared invalid unless it “conflicts with the constitution, in the judgment of the court, beyond a reasonable doubt.” The mining company accused the Plaintiffs of misunderstanding the stated purpose of the amendment and the Montana Constitution. It claimed it was appropriate for the Legislature to balance Montana’s economic interests with other fundamental rights and said MEPA is a “procedural statute with a procedural remedy.” The company argued the MEPA was never intended to be a regulatory Act and added that while Montana’s Bill of Rights provides for a clean and healthy environment, it also included the right to “pursue life’s basic necessities,” including employment, enjoying private property, and happiness in all lawful ways.
State of Montana Arguments
The State of Montana argued that the strict scrutiny test does not apply to the constitutional challenge because the Court was required to balance the Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment with Lucky Minerals’ private property rights. It asserted that the right to a clean and healthful environment is on equal footing to the rights of private landowners to use their private property. It also stated the Court is required to presume the statute is constitutional unless if it conflicts with the Constitution beyond a reasonable doubt. It stated that Plaintiffs bear the burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt. The State also argued the Metal Mine Reclamation Act (MMRA) provides sufficient environmental protections and remedies that the right to a clean and healthy environment would not be compromised.
District Court’s Holding
The Montana District Court granted the Plaintiff’s Motion for Vacatur and voided Lucky Mineral's Exploration License issued by DEQ. The court agreed with the Defendant's contention that legislative acts are presumed to be constitutional unless it “conflicts with the constitution, in the judgment of the court, beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court noted that what makes a state interest ‘compelling’ is to be determined on a case by case basis. They relied on an earlier Supreme Court decision that addressed the level of scrutiny to be applied in cases involving the right to a clean and healthful environment when in conflicted with private property interests.
In MEIC v. DEQ, the Plaintiffs challenged a statute for violating the Montana Constitution. In addition to the Court finding the Plaintiffs had standing, it applied the strict scrutiny test and held the statute violated the environmental rights guaranteed by the Montana Constitution. The Court in MEIC stated, “Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state’s rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked.”
The Montana District Court conducted a strict scrutiny analysis in the Lucky Mining permit case and determined that while the purpose of MEPA is to prevent, mitigate, or eliminate damage to the environment, the amendments would eliminate the Court’s ability to prevent any environmental harm that would occur as result of a MEPA violation. The Court concluded the amendments violate the fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment and interfere with the State’s obligation to provide adequate remedies to protect that right. The District Court also noted that when MEPA was adopted, the Legislature recognized that its purpose was to balance the harmony between humans and the environment with the right to use and enjoy private property free of undue government regulation. However, the Court held the amendments upset the balance by “rendering the remand process ineffective and meaningless.”
If you would like more information on this case or are in a situation that calls for the balancing of interests between economic and property rights with the environment, call Whitcomb Selinsky PC at (866) 476-4558.