Before a room packed with supporters, Stillwater County landowners from the Nye/Fishtail area yesterday presented hundreds of signed petitions to the Stillwater County Commissioners. The petitioners want to establish the Stillwater County Beartooth Front Zoning District to locally regulate oil and gas activity within the boundaries of the zone. The area of the proposed zone is large, approximately 79,500 acres, and includes about 600 properties.
The submission is the culmination of over two years of work by local landowners in this rural community, who were jolted into action in October 2013 when John Mork, CEO of Energy Corporation of America, promised to use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies to “bring something like the Bakken” to the area.
Following Mork’s announcement, neighbors set to work learning about the impacts of oil and gas activity, studying Montana law and regulations, holding meetings to weigh possible alternatives, reaching broad consensus for action among landowners, and gathering signatures.
A history of local involvement in mineral extraction
This area of Stillwater County has a long history of successful coexistence with mineral extraction companies. The Good Neighbor Agreement with the Stillwater Mining Company, which is located near the proposed zone, is a legally binding contract that has stood for years. The agreement has established a process for citizens to regularly meet with company representatives to address and prevent problems related to mining impacts, reclamation, wildlife, and other issues. It set aside land in conservation easements, instituted a program to reduce traffic on winding valley roads, and provided for independent environmental audits.
What was submitted to the Commissioners
According to the petitions, the
“District is in the public interest or convenience because Oil and Gas Activity, without local regulation, threatens substantial adverse impacts within the proposed District to (1) the public health, safety, and welfare, (2) private property, (3) public property such as County roads and bridges, (4) the quality and quantity of both surface and ground water, (5) air quality, (6) the quality and quantity of soil, and (7) the rural residential and agricultural character of the area.”
To back up this argument, the petitioners submitted a document detailing recent peer-reviewed and other scientific studies showing the potential harm of oil and gas activity to water and air quality, to agriculture and soil quality, and to public health; the possible consequences of faulty wellpad engineering, and the impact of excessive noise and light associated with drilling. According to the document, scientific study is just beginning to catch up with the oil and gas boom in eastern Montana and elsewhere — “over half of the available studies on the adverse impacts of shale and tight gas development have been published since January, 2014.”
The County Commissioners meeting
At the November 10 meeting, the petitioners were represented by Kayce Donohoe Arthun, a fourth generation landowner who lives in the proposed zone. The Commissioners granted the petitioners an hour on the agenda to present their petitions and background information.
The meeting was not a public hearing. That will take place later, after the signatures are verified. It was an opportunity for the group to formally present the petitions and provide a rationale behind this course of action.
While I recommend watching the entire video below to understand what happened at the meeting, I think the statement Kayce Arthun made beginning at 41:07 is an excellent summary of the case for the petitions, and her personal appeal at the end provides historical perspective explaining how the proposed zone is central to preserving a way of life:
“All we’re asking is to look forward, not to put regulations in place that don’t allow oil and gas development, but to do it responsibly, and to make sure that we protect our way of life….
My grandmother Mary Donohoe proposed the same type of citizen initiated zoning district back in the 90s. However, it was in regards to hard rock mining, and there was a lot of concern about that at the time because people wanted to see that develop here in our county. Well, her and a lot of like-minded people, they wanted to see it done responsibly. They knew hard rock mining was coming to our county and was here to stay, but they wanted to see it done the right way. So they came and presented to a group of individuals just like yourselves sitting in those chairs, and as a group, both the landowners and the County Commissioners, it was decided to move forward and to put a citizen initiated zoning district in place….
Many people thought that might be the death of hard rock mining in Stillwater County, and as we all know, it wasn’t. Stillwater Mining Company is Stillwater County’s largest employer….However, what it did do is it allowed neighbors and county government and the Stillwater Mine to work together and to say, ‘We’re neighbors, let’s do this responsibly, both as landowners and a mining company. Let’s protect what we all find is important in our home. And it’s been a real successful partnership,…and that’s why we’re here today.
You can view the meeting in the video below:
Commissioners, left to right:
- Dennis Shupak (District 1), Chair
- Jerry Dell (District 2)
- Maureen Davey (District 3)
Presenters for the petitioners:
- Kayce Donohoe Arthun, local resident
- Hank Lischer, Nye, presenting the petitions
- Burt Williams, Nye, presenting the map of the proposed zone
- Kevin Chandler, Professional Scientist, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, presenting on “Hydrology of the Beartooth Front”
- Julia Haggerty, Assistant Professor, Montana State University Department of Earth Sciences, presenting on the impacts of oil and gas drilling on communities in eastern Montana.
What happens next?
The right to set up a citizen initiated zone, or Part I zoning, is established in Montana law by MCA § 76-2-101. Any interested group of citizens in a county can create a zone. It is a democratic process. If 60% of the residents in an area want to create the zone, it can be brought forward to the County Commission. Here are the steps:
- A zone map must be created to reflect the properties to be included in the zone and define the perimeter of the zone. Complete ✔
- Each landowner in the proposed zone who supports the district needs to sign a petition. The signature must match exactly the name on the title of the land. Complete ✔
- When more than 60% of the landowners in the district have signed the petition, it can be brought to the County Commission. Complete ✔
- The County Clerk verifies that the signatures are valid. This is the next step. The County has indicated that it will take some time to validate so many signatures. We will be monitoring to make sure they make timely progress.
- After the signatures are validated, the Commissioners hold a public meeting to determine whether the zone is in the “public interest and convenience.” If so, a planning and zoning committee is established. This is a seven member board that reviews the zoning petition and recommends how it should be implemented.
- After opportunities for public input, the planning and zoning commission puts in place the regulations for the district. These regulations must be consistent with the County’s growth plan.
- The planning and zoning commission is responsible for the ongoing administration of the district.
We’ll keep you updated.
Stillwater County News, “Protecting the Beartooths from Bakken Problems,” by Richard Hanners, November 12, 2015
Northern Plains Resource Council Press Release, “Stillwater County citizens initiate petition for zoning district,” November 12, 2015
Susan Swimley letter regarding authority of Montana counties to regulate oil and gas activity if regulations avoid direct conflicts with state law and avoid preemption by state, December 15, 2014 (submitted to Stillwater County Commissioners)
Fox News, “Stillwater County citizens initiate petition for zoning district,” November 12, 2015