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By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

A federal judge in Billings has issued a preliminary order directing the federal government to redo its analysis of a 6,500-acre expansion of a southeastern Montana coal mine.

In his Feb. 11 order, Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan said the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take a hard look at how expanding the Rosebud Mine, which is operated by Westmoreland Rosebud Mining, LLC, would impact water quantity and quality. Cavan also said the government should have weighed the costs of greenhouse gas emissions in its project analysis, given that it listed expected socioeconomic benefits.

Without an expansion of the existing mine, Westmoreland will exhaust the supply of coal at the Colstrip complex within three to five years, so Cavan’s order has significant implications for the continued operation of the Colstrip power plant, the mine’s chief customer and one of the largest U.S. emitters of carbon dioxide.

In 2019, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, 350 Montana and Indian People’s Action sued the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, a federal agency housed within the Interior Department, over its approval of the mine expansion. The groups argued that the government failed to adequately consider the expansion’s cumulative effects on surface water and how continued withdrawals of water from the Yellowstone River to operate the coal-fired power plant would impact endangered pallid sturgeon.

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