By Anne Hedges
The Rosebud Coal Mine is a large strip mine in sourheastern Montana that provides all of the coal to the Colstrip power plant. MEIC and our members have opposed a large expansion of the mine, known as Area F, since it was first proposed back in 2011. Since then, we have argued that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) have consistently failed to consider the damage the mine and power plant cause to area waters, wildlife, and the climate. After years and years of advocacy, in February of this year, a federal magistrate in Billings agreed and recommended that federal Judge Susan Watters find the expansion to be illegal.
If fully permitted, the Area F expansion would add 6,500 acres to the mine, the equivalent of about 5,000 football fields. This area is projected to provide the power plant with an additional 71 million tons of coal that, if mined and burned, would result in approximately 140 million tons of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. The Colstrip plant currently burns about 6 million tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine each year, and so Area F coal alone could add an additional 11-12 years of operating fuel for the plant.
In order to downplay the environmental impacts associated with the expansion, DEQ and OSM put their “thumbs on the scale” in the 2019 joint environmental impact statement (FEIS). The FEIS calculated the economic benefits associated with the mine expansion, but failed to consider the economic and environmental impacts that burning the coal would have on the climate and water resources. MEIC, Indian People’s Action, 350 Montana, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians challenged the FEIS in federal court. Luckily, we had the outstanding legal services of Shiloh Hernandez, formerly with the Western Environmental Law Center and now with Earthjustice.
The judge rightfully found the three-sentence conclusion in the FEIS on cumulative impacts to surface waters to be insufficient. The FEIS confusingly stated that impacts would “range from minor to major,” while also listing multiple actions that would impact surface waters. The court also rejected OSM’s argument that a DEQ permitting analysis released after the FEIS was completed was sufficient to satisfy the legal obligations of OSM under the National Environmental Policy Act. Finally, the court rejected the government’s argument that it did not have to analyze the impacts of the additional greenhouse gasses that would result from burning the coal at the power plant.
The FEIS listed the continued operation of the Colstrip plant as a major benefit of the mine expansion, yet the government argued throughout the legal proceedings that the power plant’s impacts to water resources and the climate did not have to be considered or that their cursory analysis was satisfactory. The judge rejected this argument, pointing out that the mine owner, Westmoreland Coal Co., had made inconsistent statements regarding whether the power plant should even be considered in the economic analysis associated with a mine expansion.
The absurd dichotomy in Westmoreland’s argument is this: in one forum, it says that the damages caused by the power plant should not be considered in the mine expansion because the plant would continue to operate by acquiring coal from another mine. Elsewhere, Westmoreland contradicts that by claiming that the Colstrip plant would have to shut down if the mine is unable to extract Area F coal. (As an aside, the FEIS said that even without Area F coal, the mine has sufficient coal to provide the plant with fuel until 2030.) While Westmoreland and government agencies can’t seem to get their stories straight, the law is clear that the impacts of the power plant must be considered in the environmental analysis for the mine expansion.
This is an important victory for our climate and for water resources in the arid eastern part of the state. We await Judge Watters’ final decision on the magistrate’s recommendation.
This article was published in the March 2022 issue of Down To Earth.