Conservation groups have formally petitioned the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to revoke Signal Peak Energy’s permit for the Bull Mountains Mine north of Billings. Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Western Environmental Law Center, and Earthjustice cite habitual criminal activity, a history of corruption, and environmental and public health violations by the mine’s owners as cause for the petition.
The same groups simultaneously filed a citizen complaint with DEQ over the mine’s chronic legal violations. In early July, a similar complaint was filed by the groups with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), but OSMRE required the conservation groups to start the complaint process by filing with the state.
“The Bull Mountains Mine has a shameful history of environmental degradation in Montana. That alone should be sufficient for DEQ to suspend and ultimately revoke Signal Peak’s permit” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Add to that the consistent lawlessness and corruption Signal Peak management has demonstrated in the management of their mine and other affairs, and this should be an easy decision. These dirty practices—in every sense of the word—have no place in Montana and we hope DEQ will recognize that and take long-overdue action to address it.”
“How much unlawful activity and malfeasance by Signal Peak are regulators going to ignore?” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office. “The history of criminal activity and corruption associated with this mine should demonstrate that Signal Peak is a bad actor, unwilling to follow the law. We are calling on DEQ to step in to ensure the safety of both Montana’s citizens and our environment.”
Signal Peak, the mine’s operator, has been called a “den of thievery” by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and is associated with a laundry list of criminal activities including cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, worker safety and environmental violations, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery, and money laundering.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice convicted Signal Peak for multiple counts of health and safety violations, which included a $1 million fine and three years of probation. Local landowners and conservation groups expressed support for this accountability but have determined that the scope, scale, and frequency of legal violations and criminal activity require stronger measures to protect the health and safety of nearby communities as well as mine workers. The petition and complaint sent by conservation groups detail Signal Peak’s repeated violations of environmental and public health laws for the 14 years it has operated the mine.
“The promise that coal and ranching could coexist has been broken. Instead of making the effort to be good neighbors, Signal Peak finds it more convenient to eliminate their neighbors and take away their livelihoods,” said Steve Charter, a Northern Plains Resource Council member who ranches above the Bull Mountains Mine. “Since its arrival, this corporation has abused our land, water, and operations. Given the gruesome details that came to light about worker injuries and bribes to silence them, we know the company is treating its employees with the same disregard. Local families deserve to live in peace without criminal activity posing perpetual threats to our health and safety. These are not the type of people we want doing business in Montana.
“The criminal behavior of those in charge of the Signal Peak Mine warrants an immediate investigation by the state,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy at the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The mine operator has repeatedly proven itself to be unscrupulous. Mining operations threaten water quality and quantity yet the state has turned a blind eye to the concerns of those who rely on area waters and springs for their livelihoods. It’s time for a comprehensive investigation of this mine, its various owners, and its flagrant disregard for water resources and the rights of neighboring landowners.”
The petition for revocation documents Signal Peak’s failure to fully disclose those who own and control the mine. The mine’s permit does not identify any of the owners of Gunvor Group, Ltd, which controls a 33.3% ownership stake in Signal Peak. Gunvor has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. Treasury has stated that Putin has “investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.” U.S. State Department cables have stated that Gunvor is a “front for massive corruption” and that Putin “took a cut from each barrel [of oil] exported from Russia, through Swiss trading company Gunvor.”
“The Signal Peak Mine is an unmitigated disaster,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for WildEarth Guardians. “It’s crooked, it’s a climate nightmare, and it’s contaminating our environment. It’s time for a truly thorough investigation.”
Signal Peak has a history of harassing local landowners and damaging the land and water of neighboring ranchers (video featured at link) who operate above the mine. In March 2019, a Montana judge ordered Signal Peak to pay the attorneys’ fees of local ranchers after the court found that the coal company had issued “unwarranted” and “oppressive” subpoenas against the ranchers based on “improper motives.” Signal Peak’s attorney admitted that it was seeking to subpoena the ranchers because they had submitted public comments critical of the mine. Both federal and state coal mining laws require sustained public participation in all aspects to achieve the regulatory program’s goals.
“We’re talking about a company that’s been fined for injuring workers and dumping mine waste illegally,” said Caitlin Piserchia, Interim Chapter Director of Montana Sierra Club. “Montanans across the state are advocating for clean energy, sustainable jobs, and stronger environmental protections. Signal Peak’s continued exploitation of our state’s workers and resources is incompatible with that vision and they must be held accountable.”
Over the past six years, three federal courts and one Montana review board have all concluded that government decisions approving expansions of the mine violated federal and state environmental laws. During this period, three separate federal criminal prosecutions across the United States have targeted Signal Peak and its owners.