Utah Senate strikes back at frivolous environmental suits

Published May 1, 2002

Utah legislators may have found an answer to the mountains of environmental lawsuits filed against federal, state, and local governments each year.

The state senate on March 6 passed Senate Bill 183, allowing ranchers, miners, and oil developers to file countersuits and recover damages against persons or organizations who delay projects on state or federal lands through “improper” litigation. Permissible damages include lost wages, legal costs, attorney fees, and lost economic benefit.

Senators supporting the bill were particularly motivated by frequent lawsuits filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which routinely challenges federal decisions to grant mining, oil, and grazing permits, and the Sierra Club, which also challenges many local land uses. In addition to empowering individuals to countersue environmental activists, the senate authorized $140,000 to hire an attorney to defend rural citizens in a number of suits brought by the federal government and environmental activist groups.

Heidi McIntosh, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, criticized the legislative action.

“Despite the fact that Utah has one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, there is anti-environmental legislation passed year after year that wastes taxpayers’ money,” said McIntosh. “They are shooting themselves in the foot. They need to wake up and understand that the (environment) is bigger than them [sic]. In cases that target public lands, it is owned by all Americans and cherished by all Americans.”

In other legislative action this term, lawmakers passed a mixed bag of laws concerning environmental issues:

  • Lawmakers passed legislation protecting farmers from being removed from their farms by people building nearby homes and then filing nuisance suits against the farmers based on typical farm odors. “People will just have to live with it,” said Senator Leonard Blackham (R-Moroni), who supported the farmers.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers was denied a permit exemption that would have allowed it to ship low-radiation material to a waste facility in Tooele County. While sparing the state the storage of some low-radiation material, the legislation will cost the county and state a combined $800,000 in lost revenue.
  • Lawmakers stiffened penalties against anybody who attacks a business engaged in the production or sale of animal products.
  • Two proposed dams on the Bear River were scuttled in response to environmental protests. The dams were central to the state’s future water-delivery plans, but were targeted for elimination in legislation supported by the Utah Rivers Council (URC). The URC argued it was improper to flood 15 miles of farms, ranches, wetlands, and Shoshone burial grounds.