BILLINGS, Mont. – A U.S. District Court judge ruled Monday that the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) improperly approved the expansion of Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain coal mine, south of Roundup, Montana. The judge ordered that mining immediately stop in the area. The court ruled that OSM illegally put its “thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits…while minimizing its impacts” when the agency decided to approve this large mine expansion.
Judge Donald W. Molloy of the District Court of Montana ruled that OSM did not take a hard look at the public health and environmental impacts of the mine expansion as required by law. The court held that OSM ignored harm to communities and the environment from trains transporting coal across the Pacific Northwest for export, and also failed to consider climate impacts of burning the 176 million tons of coal that the agency permitted.
The expansion, which included 176 million tons of coal, would have made the Bull Mountain Mine the largest underground coal mine in the nation based on production. Because Signal Peak intended to export virtually all of the coal, mostly to Asian markets, the expansion would also have greatly increased coal train traffic through western Montana, Idaho, and Washington, threatening communities along the rail route. In fact, just hours before the court issued its decision, a coal train derailed between Heron and Noxon, dumping 30 cars full of coal into the Clark Fork River. A single car carries roughly 120 tons of coal.
This is the second time in less than two years that an expansion of the Signal Peak mine was found to be illegal. Last year a state oversight board found the state failed to protect water quality in the area when it issued a state permit for the mine expansion. Additionally, in the last three years the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sent eight separate warning letters (along with two reminders and one request for public notice of violations) to Signal Peak for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, and Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow (MELT) were co-plaintiffs in the case, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. They released the following statements:
“This case represents an important step forward in accounting for the impacts of coal transport and combustion,” said Laura King of the Western Environmental Law Center. “We’re closer today to a true representation of the costs of burning fossil fuels than we were yesterday.”
“A federal agency should not be allowed to put its thumb on the scale when making decisions of this magnitude. The law requires, and the public deserves, an honest analysis of the risks and the benefits of proposals such as these,” said Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The company and a government agency tried to cut corners once again. Thankfully the court didn’t let that happen.”
“The bottom line is that Signal Peak tried to operate what would have been the country’s largest underground coal mine without studying the potential impacts,” said Mike Scott, Senior Organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “This ruling corrects that. Now both Signal Peak and OSM have to do what everyone else does; follow the law and be honest with Montanans about the public health impacts of mining, shipping, and burning coal.”
“As fires burn across the state and the air fills with smoke, we are constantly reminded that climate change poses a significant risk to Montanans’ health,” said Harold Hoem with Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow. “These impacts deserve serious consideration when government agencies decide whether or not to approve a proposal for the largest underground coal mine in the country. People across Montana deserve to know what the impacts will be from increased rail traffic and the burning of coal.”