State officials have told a Montana-based religious group it must cease all work on its underground fallout shelters and stop any subdivision activity at its developments near Emigrant.
Dennis Iverson, director of the state Health Department, said in a letter dated last Friday that the order would stand until the state completes an environmental review of church developments in Park County.Murray Steinman, a spokesman for the Church Universal and Triumphant, said Wednesday that church officials were studying Iverson's letter. He declined to comment further.
Steinman said the letter, addressed to church Vice President Ed Francis, was responding to a church request about the status of permits for various church developments. The church also had questions about the $70,000 it has been asked to pay for an environmental review, Steinman said.
The letter is the latest salvo in a yearlong legal tussle between the church and the state, centering on the church's huge fallout-shelter complex just north of Yellowstone National Park. The dispute also encompasses underground construction at two church-sponsored housing developments at Emigrant, which is 30 miles to the north.
The state filed suit against the church last April, after 31,000 gallons of fuel leaked from tanks buried near the fallout-shelter complex near Mol Heron Creek. It sought to halt all church construction at the site, force a cleanup and impose fines on the church.
State health officials also decided last year to reopen an environmental review of church developments, saying church officials deliberately concealed construction of the shelter during an earlier state review.
In February, the state asked the church to cough up $70,000 for the expanded review.
"We're not going to take taxpayer's money and pay for the review," said Steve Pilcher, administrator of the state Environmental Services Division. If the church refuses to pay, the state will go back to District Judge Peter Rapkoch for further guidance, he said. Rapkoch is presiding over the lawsuit.
Church officials have maintained that the fallout shelters at Mol Heron Creek did not need permits because they didn't fit the legal description of needing "public" water and sewer systems. State officials disagree.
"The church should not have been allowed to proceed (with the bomb shelters), and may not now proceed, until the issuance of these permit approvals," Iverson wrote.
The church and its members built fallout shelters in preparation for a possible nuclear or other global catastrophe. Church spiritual leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet said a 12-year period of dangerous times on Earth was to begin last April.
Hundreds of church members flocked to the area last winter to build shelters or be near ones they already had built, anticipating Prophet's predictions.
The state's complex lawsuit accuses the church of violating subdivision review and environmental laws, and also seeks fines against the church.
"The suit is not on the back burner, but is on a burner behind the environmental review," Pilcher said.
Iverson's letter also suggested that the church reveal all of its "presently known . . . or potential plans at this time."