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By Darrell Ehrlick, Daily Montanan

Coal mining company said the decision could cause it to close.

A federal judge has vacated a decision that would have allowed a coal mining company to move ahead with an expansion plan near Roundup because officials in the Trump administration granted a permit there without any consideration of what it may do the scarce water in the area.

Officials from the Signal Peak Mine said the decision may eventually force the mine to close, while U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy ordered the United States Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed expansion, which federal officials said could take between 18 and 24 months.

The ruling, issued Monday by Molloy, resolves a challenge that went to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel sent it back to Molloy, ordering that there was inadequate information that would have allowed officials to determine if the expansion of the mine on federal lands would damage the water or environment. In his ruling, Molloy chastised the Trump administration for ignoring the question and not evaluating the impacts.

“The Enforcement Office’s errors cast substantial doubt on the agency’s decision to approve the mine expansion in the first instance,” Molloy wrote. “That doubt is then augmented, not assuaged, by the agency’s unilateral decision to prepare an environmental impact statement at this late stage of proceedings.”

In order to try to correct the problem that the trial court and the appeals court homed in on, the office began an environmental review process  a less rigorous evaluation, the court said – in order to compensate. Molloy cast doubts on whether the agency could be trusted without going through a more thorough process.


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