By Derf Johnson
The Rosebud Mine north of Billings.
While the coal industry is in a long-term structural decline both in the United States and here in Montana, due in large part to its replacement by far cleaner, more efficient, and more affordable energy sources, a majority of the Montana Legislature is still beholden to the coal industry and apparently willing to sacrifice water, air quality, and our climate for short-term industry profits. There’s no doubt that coal has been a backbone energy industry for a long time and has provided well-paying union jobs and energy for Montana. But the energy system in Montana and the United States is rapidly changing, and it would behoove the Legislature to plan for an orderly transition to clean energy and not let coal mining companies pollute our rivers and streams on their way out the door.
This context makes the legislature’s current reforms of coal mining a bit perplexing. There’s not another way to put it: the coal mining bills that are still “alive” would weaken environmental standards and public accountability for the coal mining industry. If they pass (as written), the ability for coal mining companies to ignore environmental safeguards and trash sensitive eastern Montana prairie streams — all while avoiding accountability for doing so from the public — would be greatly expanded. Four bills in particular are incredibly troublesome and will be discussed in more detail below.
Interestingly enough, while these bills propose to slash regulations, they would not actually become effective law without the consent of the federal government. This is because Congress has vested most of the power of coal and clean water regulations with the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and any state that carries out the law on behalf of the federal government, and that significantly changes aspects of its program, must submit those changes to EPA and OSM for final approval. The feds cannot approve any changes that go below federal standards or otherwise conflict with federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. And so the Montana Legislature is now in an audacious game of chicken with the federal government in proposing to weaken Montana’s laws right up to the federal baseline, or even below it.
The most problematic legislation is HB 576 (Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson), which changes the way in which mines are allowed to pollute water resources outside of their permit boundaries, known as “material damage.” There is a strict prohibition on coal mines causing material damage to the hydrologic system. Under current law, one of the ways to determine whether mines are causing material damage is to assess whether water quality standards are being violated from the mine’s operations. This is a very clear, easily enforceable definition of material damage, as it is a numeric assessment of water quality impacts. HB 576 would remove violation of water quality standards from the definition of material damage, injecting uncertainty and subjectivity into making material damage assessments and ostensibly allowing for coal mines to pollute in excess of water quality standards. The bill is also retroactive and would apply to all previously-issued coal mining permits that are currently under review by a judge or hearing examiner but have not had a final decision. Needless to say, this is an attempt to undermine a number of ongoing legal actions.
Two proposed bills attempt to undercut the ability for citizens to participate in coal mine and water pollution permitting processes. The first, SB 392 (Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls) attempts to eliminate the ability for citizens and organizations to go to court in order to prevent or eliminate environmental harms from coal mining. The bill would radically change the way attorneys’ fees are assessed by prohibiting a judge from considering the “identity” of a party, meaning that the court cannot distinguish between a corporation, individual, non-profit, government entity, etc., in the assessment of whether fees are appropriate. The language of this bill would make individuals and non-profits potentially responsible for paying the attorneys’ fees and expert costs of large corporations and government agencies, which could cost millions of dollars and ultimately make it riskier to go to court to correct an environmental harm.
Next, HB 561 (Rep. Marty Malone, R-Pray) attempts to reduce public input and accountability in water pollution permitting (for all discharge permits, not just coal mines) by reducing the time period for public comments and requiring that appeals of permits go first to the Montana Board of Environmental Review (rather than district court), which has lately proven to be a cumbersome and time-consuming process that can take years for a final decision.
Finally, HB 656 (Rep. Gary Parry, R-Colstrip) would allow for most coal mine expansions that are under 320 acres to be classified as a “minor amendment” to an existing permit. Minor amendments receive very limited scrutiny and analysis by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and do not require public notice or comment. Minor amendments are normally reserved for administrative changes or minor changes to the mine plan that do not increase the mine area.
Typically, an actual expansion of the mine area would have to go through a “major amendment” process, which includes an analysis of the hydrologic and other environmental impacts, and a requirement that the public be notified and given the opportunity to comment.
The second half of the legislative session will determine which of these bills ultimately make it all the way to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. It’s likely that at least one, if not all, will be signed into law. As mentioned, the one saving grace is that major portions of these bills will not effectively become law until the federal government approves the changes. For now, we highly encourage our members and supporters to engage in the second half of the session and try to stop these rollbacks on coal mining safeguards.
This article was published in the March 2023 issue of Down To Earth.