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By Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

Coal dust in Colstrip

State and federal mine regulators ignored environmental requirements when approving a 70.8-million-ton expansion of Montana’s Rosebud mine, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan recommended Friday that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement correct its violations of the National Environmental Policy Act within a year. Otherwise, approval of the Area F expansion at Rosebud mine would be revoked. The ruling comes from U.S. District Court in Billings. Judge Susan Watters must approve the recommendation for it to take hold.

Specifically, Cavan found that OSM and Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality approved the expansion without considering the environmental consequences of burning another 70.8 million tons of Rosebud coal at neighboring Colstrip Power Plant. Included in the consequences disregarded were the negative impacts of drawing another 176,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of Yellowstone River water needed by the steam-electric generator.

The judge also faulted the agencies for weighing the economic benefits of the mine expansion, while disregarding all of the negatives. Instead of a cost-benefit analysis, the governments analyzed the benefits and skipped the costs, specifically greenhouse gas emissions.

The agencies ignored the requirements of NEPA, and six plaintiffs sued: the Montana Environmental Information Center, Indian People’s Action, 350 Montana, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians.

“The Court finds OSM failed to take a ‘hard look’ at the costs of greenhouse gas emissions,” Cavan ruled. The relationship between the mined coal and environmental impacts of the power plant was too direct to ignore.

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