Red Lodge, MT – Today, seven landowners filed a legal challenge in state district court to the Carbon County Commission’s rejection of their petition for land use regulations to protect their private properties from the harmful effects of oil and gas drilling.
The landowners collectively seek to establish the “Silvertip Zoning District” to cover nearly 3,000 acres of agricultural land north of Belfry, Montana. Creation of the district is the first step to establish solid protections for land, air and water quality, giving landowners an essential voice in the development of oil and gas on their properties.
Although some oil and gas development has occurred in Carbon County for decades, the Silvertip landowners were pressed to take action in October 2013, when Energy Corporation of America (ECA) CEO John Mork announced plans to hydraulically fracture 50 wells along the Beartooth Front — an area that includes Carbon and Stillwater counties in Montana and forms the northeastern flank of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Mork boasted that ECA hoped to bring “a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooths.
“State and federal laws don’t protect us from the worst impacts of oil and gas drilling,” said farmer Bonnie Martinell, one of the plaintiffs. “There are few requirements for protecting our water or how far drilling must be set back from residences. This means we have to take local action to do what it takes to protect our way of life and our livelihoods.”
Montana law empowers landowners to initiate the development of zoning regulations for the protection of their land and community by petitioning their county commissioners to establish planning and zoning districts. “We as landowners and farmers have seen the destructive impacts of oil development in this area and we asked the County to let us safeguard our property and livelihoods by enacting these basic protections,” said Martinell. “Citizen zoning is our only tool to protect our land and we are just trying to use that right given to us under state law.”
Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit law firm, is representing the Silvertip landowners in their appeal challenging Carbon County’s rejection of their petition. Energy Corporation of America is named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the Carbon County Commissioners. The case was filed in state district court in Red Lodge.
“Across the country, individuals and local governments are responding to the lack of state and federal leadership on the impacts of oil and gas development by demanding local control,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine. “This lawsuit is about allowing the Silvertip landowners to protect their land and their livelihoods when no one else will.”
Oil and gas drilling in shale formations such as that underlying the Silvertip area is commonly accomplished through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which involves pumping millions of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand into the ground to release trapped oil and gas. After the well is fractured, substantial quantities of this contaminated water — which contains high concentrations of salt, drilling chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactive material — returns to the surface, where it is frequently stored in open containment ponds that pose substantial risks of leaks or failures.
As much as one-third of the contaminated water can remain underground after drilling is completed, threatening pollution of soil and groundwater. Numerous chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing are linked to serious human health problems, including respiratory distress, rashes, convulsions, organ damage, and cancer. However, neither federal nor Montana law restricts the use of these dangerous chemicals in hydraulic fracturing, requires pre-drilling notification to adjacent landowners or the public, or mandates surface or groundwater testing to detect contamination.
The Silvertip landowners have lobbied extensively before the Montana legislature and the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation for protections from the adverse impacts of unregulated drilling, but those government bodies failed to take action. In Montana, several bills were introduced this legislative session that would have enacted basic safeguards on oil and gas development, but all have been tabled in committee and are unlikely to receive a full vote in either house.
Although interest in large-scale oil and gas development in Carbon County has waned with dropping oil prices in recent months, Martinell said the zoning designation remains necessary to protect landowners when oil and gas development picks up again.
“Through this process we’ve learned that developing regulations takes time and protection cannot be put in place overnight. If we’re going to get this right, now is the time to act.”
Coming up on Preserve the Beartooth Front:
Monday: Belfry well timeline