Yesterday the Montana First Judicial District Court ruled in favor of water quality and reinforced the state of Montana’s obligation to protect waterways from pollution caused by coal mining. The court rejected a water pollution discharge permit that would have allowed the Rosebud Mine to dump toxic heavy metals and other harmful pollutants into state waters without limits. Western Energy Company’s Rosebud Mine is the second largest strip mine in Montana. It supplies about 12 million tons of coal per year to the Colstrip Power Plant, in Colstrip, Montana. The Western Environmental Law Center challenged the permit issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) and the Sierra Club.

 The court agreed with conservation groups, finding DEQ attempted to avoid imposing meaningful limits on the mine’s water pollution discharges by illegally reclassifying the waterways. DEQ also utterly failed to demonstrate that monitoring only 20 percent of the pollution discharges from the mine was in any way representative of normal operations. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the court found that DEQ knew the waters in the area are impaired due to strip-mining operations yet failed to remedy impairment. DEQ instead gave Western Energy Company a free pass to discharge even more pollution into those waters. 

“The court got it right. It recognized that DEQ’s job is to protect water quality, not to kow-tow to interests that have already polluted waterways and want to harm them even more. For far too long DEQ has turned a blind eye to coal mining’s effects on waters in Montana. Instead it has done what polluters ask and ignored its duty to present and future generations that depend on clean water. Fortunately, the court recognized that water is far too important to sacrifice,” said Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“This is a huge victory for Montana residents committed to protecting our environment and water quality from the damaging impacts of coal mining,” said Nathaniel Shoaff, Staff Attorney with the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program. “DEQ should never have approved this permit in the first place. When you cut through all the technical talk, this permit just gave a coal company the legal license to pollute with impunity. The permit imposed no real pollution limitations and next to no requirements for the coal company to even monitor its pollution discharges. What is incredible is that DEQ lists the receiving streams as impaired because of the mine. The court’s decision is a forceful affirmation that Montana’s waters must be protected.”

“The court’s well reasoned decision makes clear that the Montana DEQ can’t continue to turn a blind eye to existing water quality problems caused by this giant strip mine,” said Shiloh Hernandez, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “DEQ’s job under the Clean Water Act is simple. It’s supposed to restore and protect the state’s waterways. It cannot ignore this duty just because a coal company doesn’t want to control pollution.”

A link to the court’s decision is available here.

Read more about the case here.

Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center, 406-461-9546, Shiloh Hernandez, Western Environmental Law Center, 406-443-3501, ext. 127, 
Nathaniel Shoaff, Sierra Club, 415-200-9778, 

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