By Anne Hedges
The Signal Peak coal mine cannot get its story straight, and a federal judge has finally put the brakes on mining federal coal in an enormous expansion of the mine. For years, Signal Peak has sought approval to expand the coal mine north of Billings, which would make it the largest underground coal mine in the nation. Numerous courts have ruled that federal and state regulators ignored mining laws and concerns raised by the public when they approved Signal Peak’s Bull Mountain mine expansion. The expansion harms freshwater springs perched above the mine upon which wildlife and ranchers rely, threatens endangered species in the area and along the rail route, and contributes to the climate crisis. The most recent legal victory in this ongoing saga is a result of the dogged work of attorney Shiloh Hernandez, Western Environmental Law Center, and Earthjustice.
In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leased federal coal to Signal Peak so that it could expand its Bull Mountain coal mine north of Billings. MEIC objected to the lease, but BLM said the mine expansion was in the public interest because the coal would be for domestic use and provide national energy security. Today, virtually all of the coal from the mine is exported to Asian markets.
A few years after leasing the coal, both the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Office of Surface Mining (OSM) issued mining permits to allow the extraction of approximately 176 million tons of coal. DEQ’s first permit approval was overturned by former Gov. Steve Bullock’s Board of Environmental Review and required DEQ to redo its analysis. Unfortunately, DEQ’s subsequent analysis was also deeply flawed. However, this time, the board, recently appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, approved the expansion despite obvious legal errors by DEQ. MEIC, represented by Shiloh Hernandez with Earthjustice, has appealed that decision to state district court.
Since leasing the coal, OSM has conducted two deeply flawed environmental analyses (EAs) on the impacts of the mine expansion. A federal district court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that both EAs are legally flawed because they failed to consider the impacts of the mine’s expansion on the climate, endangered species, and water resources.
After the most recent appeals court decision, OSM agreed to conduct a more rigorous environmental impact statement (EIS). Unfortunately, Signal Peak continues to fight against any meaningful regulatory oversight of the mine and recently attempted to convince the federal court to allow it to continue mining federal coal while OSM conducts the required EIS. However, the court didn’t buy Signal Peak’s argument and flatly rejected its request, citing the severe harm the mine is causing to the area springs and the ranchers who depend on them.
The court found that “Signal Peak feign[ed] confusion” over the court’s ruling and attempted to present new evidence and arguments that it had never before bothered to provide to the court. It ruled that Signal Peak failed to present the required legal rationale when it asking the court to reverse its decision. Instead, the court found that Signal Peak provided testimony that contradicted previous testimony and didn’t meet the required legal standard. MEIC, 350 Montana, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians are represented by Earthjustice and Western Environmental Law Center in the federal litigation, and will continue to press for accountability and clean water in the Bull Mountains.
Signal Peak has a long, sordid history of corruption, criminal indictments, worker safety coverups, and bribery, not to mention the criminal behavior of the company’s owners. State and federal regulators’ (along with a few Montana politicians) continued defense of this bad actor mining company is shameful enough, but it is particularly vexing when they also ignore their legal duties and the needs of existing ranching operations and wildlife that rely on the area springs and a clean, safe environment.
This article was published in the March 2023 issue of Down To Earth.