Montana Environmental Information Center

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Coal Mining in Montana

Photo courtesy of Kestrel Aerial Services, Inc. (c)www.kestrelaerial.com

It is estimated that Montana has 25% of the nation’s recoverable coal reserves. However, compared to neighboring states, the rate of coal mining in Montana has remained relatively constant for the past 30 years, largely because: 1. Coal in Montana is more expensive to mine; 2. Montana coal is farther away from most markets and transportation facilities, and therefore more expensive to transport; and 3. Some Montana coal deposits are of marginal quality. Recently, there has been an increasing push to open new coal mines for increased export to the booming Asian economies.

Reclamation of Coal Mining

Coal mining in Montana comes at significant cost to the land and water of our state. Reclamation of coal mines has posed a significant challenge. Although Montana has an adequate reclamation law, companies are not required to reclaim lands concurrently with mining. This makes reclamation more difficult to re-establish vegetation and expensive to implement, and raises to the issue of whether the reclamation bonds are adequate.

Impacts on Our Water

Water impacts pose the biggest challenge in protecting our environment from coal mining in Montana. While surface water drainages are relatively easy to restore superficially, it remains to be seen how viable they will be over the long term. Underground aquifers are especially susceptible to coal mining. As groundwater percolates through reclaimed spoils it becomes contaminated with all a multitude of previously unavailable chemicals and toxins. This contamination will ultimately manifest itself in surface water, in the uptake of contaminants in vegetation, and in well water. Because coal mining companies are unable to effectively deal with these water quality problems, no land mined after the passage of the Montana Strip and Underground Mine Reclamation Act has ever had its bond fully released.