State health officials are asking the Church Universal and Triumphant to pay more than $70,000 for an environmental study of its southern Montana developments and say no permits will be issued until the study is completed."If the church doesn't want to pay, no EIS (environmental impact study) is done and no permits or approvals can be issued by this agency," said Steve Pilcher, director of the Environmental Sciences Division of the state Health Department.
The study will focus on the social, economic and environmental impacts of the church's 10-year presence in Park County, according to a letter from state Health Director Dennis Iverson to church Vice President Ed Francis.
Church spokesman Murray Steinman said the church has no comment on Iverson's letter.
The church, a New Age religious group with its international headquarters in Corwin Springs, owns about 30,000 acres in Park County. It operates two ranches, several housing developments and a food-processing plant and has a 750-person underground fallout shelter in a mountain meadow near Yellowstone National Park.
The state conducted a two-year environmental study that was released in early 1989, focusing on church developments near Corwin Springs. After discovering in mid-1989 that the church was building the giant fallout shelter west of Corwin Springs, state officials accused the church of deception and decided to reopen and expand the environmental review to include all church holdings in the county.
Hank Rate, a Corwin Springs resident and frequent critic of the church, said the broader study is better late than never.
"Anything that objectively lays out what's happening here can't help but help," he said.
The EIS will be performed by an independent contractor and will look at primary, secondary and cumulative effects of church developments. Unlike the earlier study, it will include the church's North Ranch and two housing developments near Emigrant.
Hundreds of church members flocked to Paradise Valley last winter and spring to be near their bomb shelters in advance of potential calamities prophesied by church spiritual leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet.
State officials said the new study will try to obtain an accurate count of church members either living or visiting here and assess their impacts on local government, schools, housing, employment and economy.
It also will study environmental impacts on wildlife, air and water quality, surface water, soils and historic sites.
The church also faces a complex water-quality lawsuit by the state, filed last April after 31,000 gallons of fuel leaked from underground tanks buried near the 750-person fallout shelter.