This Coal Mine Has Been Called a “Den of Thievery.” Why Is It Still Operational?

The New York Times just dropped a bombshell on Signal Peak Energy's Bull Mountains Mine

Editor’s Note

On Feb. 10, 2023, a federal judge halted the mining of coal owned by the American people at Signal Peak’s Bull Mountains Underground Coal Mine, pending a thorough analysis of the mine’s impacts on ranchers, vital water sources, and the environment. The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) is now required to prepare an environmental impact statement to determine whether to allow a proposed 170-million-ton expansion to proceed. In approving the expansion, Trump’s OSM largely ignored the impacts.

In Apr. 2022 a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that OSM had wrongly approved an expansion of the mine. In a 2-1 decision, the panel found that OSM “hid the ball” on the mine’s impacts. The case was then remanded to District Court to determine the appropriate legal remedy.

In January, The New York Times released a jaw-dropping story by Hiroko Tabuchi on the corruption and criminal activity surrounding Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountains Coal Mine in Montana. The story reads:

“The embezzlement and fake kidnapping were part of the unraveling of a coal company called Signal Peak Energy that also involved bribery, cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, worker safety and environmental infringements, a network of shell companies, a modern-day castle, an amputated finger and past links to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.”

While this might sound like a leaked plot from the Western television series Yellowstone, it is very much a Montana reality thanks to the lack of meaningful oversight from state and federal regulators. Signal Peak has been called a “den of thievery” according to the U.S. Attorney’s office, yet somehow this corrupt mine continues its operations, putting the surrounding community, workers, and Montana’s environment at significant risk. As the coal industry struggles nationwide and established firms go bankrupt, hucksters and fly-by-night outfits are snapping up mines with schemes to scrape any remaining profit from the land. Consequently, it is critical for regulators to closely scrutinize these operations to prevent them from inflicting undue harm on the public.

Earthjustice and our partners have filed administrative complaints with and petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, detailing the history of criminal activity, corruption, and health and safety violations of the mine’s owners. In December, we filed another complaint citing evidence of the mine’s repeated and ongoing damage to water sources that impact the livelihoods of local ranchers and residents, threatening the ecological viability of the Bull Mountains and the surrounding area. We have also litigated against the company’s expansion efforts to prevent even more damage from this lawless mine.

Despite the criminality, corruption, and environmental destruction surrounding this mine, regulators continue to look the other way and allow Signal Peak to continue its destructive ways.

Steve Charter, who ranches above the mine, has been subjected to years of bullying and harassment from the mine’s owners. The company was recently levied a criminal sentence and $1 million fine for multiple counts of health and safety violations, which included the illegal dumping of toxic slurry waste, threatening the safety of the surrounding community’s water sources. Signal Peak has attempted to force multiple local ranchers off lands leased from the mine and even from land owned by the ranchers. The company has told ranchers that its aggressive conduct toward them is due at least in part to their speaking out about the mine and insisting on reclamation of damage.

Not only is the Bull Mountains Mine a danger to surrounding communities, it is a climate disaster. It is currently the fifth largest underground coal mine in the United States by production, producing approximately 7 million tons of coal each year, though its owners aspire to be the largest. An ongoing expansion effort at the mine could emit more than a quarter billion tons of greenhouse gases. This would generate more annual emissions than the largest coal plant in the United States. In April of last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that in approving the expansion, the Office of Surface Mining ignored the climate and environmental impacts of expanding the mine. The case is now remanded to the District Court to determine the appropriate remedy.

While Signal Peak’s corruption and criminal history is difficult to believe, it is not unique in being a shady operator within the floundering coal industry. More and more, the very worst energy companies are choosing to stick by coal, while smart companies are transitioning to a modern energy system. NorthWestern Energy, another company desperately clinging to the past, recently announced that it was acquiring an even larger stake in the obsolete Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, MT. In doing so, NorthWestern is looking to continue to profit handsomely off Montanans in order to prop up an outdated and unreliable coal plant. The companies that continue to dig in on coal are the bottom feeders of the energy industry.

Federal and state regulators cannot sit idly by as these shady companies continue to trash our climate, lands, and waterways for fast profits from coal. Signal Peak Energy is one of the worst actors around, as evidenced by the laundry list of violations and crimes laid out in Hiroko Tabuchi’s story. The coal industry is obsolete, but still manages to continue its destructive practices by shifting ever more of its costs on to the public, leeching off communities and the environment and putting everyone in their path, including their own workers, at risk. To be absolutely clear, continued mining and burning of coal will cause widespread harm and suffering. It must end. That is why we are calling for Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior to halt mining operations at the Bull Mountains Coal Mine. Operations at the mine must shift entirely to mine-reclamation. On that score, there is much work to be done.

Originally published on January 31, 2023.

Based in Maryland, Perry is the Public Affairs and Communications Strategist for the Rocky Mountain Office, Northern Rockies Office, and the Biodiversity Defense Program.

Established in 1993, Earthjustice's Northern Rockies Office, located in Bozeman, Mont., protects the region's irreplaceable natural resources by safeguarding sensitive wildlife species and their habitats and challenging harmful coal and industrial gas developments.

An expansive view of the Bull Mountains in Montana, framed by a blue sky with white clouds and flowering grassland.
An expansive view of the Bull Mountains in Montana. (Northern Plains Resource Council)