MT DEQ Permit Did Not Adequately Protect Groundwater

Helena, MT

On Friday, the Montana Board of Environmental Review rejected a Department of Environmental Quality coal mine expansion permit that would have doubled the size of the Bull Mountains mine near Roundup, making it the largest underground coal mine in the nation. Representing the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club, the Western Environmental Law Center argued successfully that DEQ’s hydrology analysis for the permit was flawed.

The permit, issued in late 2013, would have allowed long-wall mining of an additional 170 million tons of coal on 7,161 acres before 2025. Long-wall mining is known to cause cave-ins and groundwater pollution, which would harm nearby ranching operations that need clean water for their livestock. DEQ refused to consider groundwater impacts beyond 50 years, even though all indications are that the mine will cause pollution for perpetuity. Montana is riddled with abandoned mines that continue to discharge harmful pollution well beyond 50 years after closure.

The board voted 4-1 to vacate the permit, remanding it back to DEQ for further analysis, although there was unanimous agreement that the permit should be vacated and remanded to the agency. The board will soon release a written opinion further explaining its decision. The mining company has the right to appeal the decision once the final order is issued.

“The Board of Environmental Review made the right call in this case by protecting water quality,” said Montana Environmental Information Center Deputy Director Anne Hedges. “It’s the DEQ’s responsibility to protect water for present and future generations. Ranchers depend on clean water from the Bull Mountains. This permit would have put the area’s groundwater at risk for contamination in pursuit of one of the dirtiest energy source in the world.”

Signal Peak Energy, the mine owner, is partially owned by the Gunvor Group, registered in Cyprus and based in Switzerland. The company exports the vast majority of the coal from the Bull Mountains to Asian markets through Canadian terminals. Effectively this mine imports mining pollution to Montana, exports air pollution from coal combustion to Asia, and exports profits to overseas investors.

“It is a sad statement here in the heart of Montana to have a foreign company mining and exporting coal to foreign markets and leaving us to clean up the mess,” said Shiloh Hernandez, attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center. “The U.S. is wisely moving past coal as an energy source, and we should not allow ourselves to be victimized by this kind of ‘coal colonialism.'”

“Coal mining in the Bull Mountains threatens to harm existing ranching operations by polluting and depleting their groundwater,” said Mike Scott of the Sierra Club. “Multinational corporations like Guvnor must be held accountable when they destroy Montana’s natural resources. The BER was right to reject this permit for a company that’s shown such disregard for family farms and ranches in eastern Montana.” 

Shiloh Hernandez, Western Environmental Law Center, 406-204-4861, Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center, 406-443-2520, Meg Matthews, Sierra Club, 206-291-5942,

Read more about our work to protect Montana’s groundwater from coal mining here.

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