By Anne Hedges & Katy Spence
Photo by: Jackie Coffin
After years of illegal behavior, Signal Peak Energy was caught by the U.S. Department of Justice. While that investigation resulted in a $1 million penalty and prison terms for some of those at the top of the corporate ladder, the investigation of Signal Peak’s Bull Mountains coal mine is incomplete. It is past time for state and federal environmental agencies to investigate the mine, its owners, and the extent to which its illegal activities have harmed area waters, wildlife, and nearby ranching operations.
In August, MEIC, along with our partners Northern Plains Resource Council, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, the Western Environmental Law Center, and Earthjustice, formally requested an investigation of Signal Peak, which operates the Bull Mountains Mine north of Billings. The Bull Mountain mine is Montana’s only underground coal mine and exports its coal to Asian markets. MEIC has repeatedly and successfully challenged state and federal approvals to allow mine expansions which would make it the largest underground coal mine in the country. What we didn’t know was that while we were challenging the mine expansion, the company was bribing workers who were injured on the job, illegally disposing of toxic waste at various locations on the mine site and in the mine, and lying on permit applications to the state. These violations are enough to warrant a revocation of its operating permit until these crimes have been investigated and resolved.
Signal Peak’s sordid history of illegal behavior includes cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, worker endangerment, environmental violations, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery, and money laundering. It has also damaged the land and water of ranchers who operate cattle operations above and near the mine.
Signal Peak has sued MEIC and local landowners in what is known in the legal world as a SLAPP suit (strategic litigation against public participation). In March 2019, a Montana judge ordered Signal Peak to pay the ranchers’ attorneys’ fees 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 critical public comments about the mine, in clear violation of constitutionally protected rights to free speech and participation.
Signal Peak has also failed to fully disclose the mine’s owners. Gunvor Group, Ltd, controls a 33.3% ownership stake in Signal Peak, according to the mine permit. Gunvor has been known to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. State and federal coal mining laws require full disclosure of coal mine ownership, yet neither state nor federal agencies have required this of Signal Peak’s three owners.
The full extent of Signal Peak’s activities should be investigated and illegal pollution addressed before Signal Peak is allowed to continue operating a coal mine in Montana.
This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth.