Conservation groups have filed a formal complaint with state and federal agencies against Signal Peak Energy, a criminally-convicted coal company operating an underground coal mine in the Bull Mountains just north of Billings, Montana. The complaint cites evidence of the mine’s repeated and ongoing damage to water sources that impact the livelihoods of local ranchers and residents, threatening the broader ecological viability of the Bull Mountains and surrounding area. The document also references inaction by responsible state and federal agencies despite Signal Peak’s egregious violations of law and the history of corruption and scandal attributed to the mine’s owners — WMB Marketing Ventures LLC of Ohio (Wayne M Boich, president and sole manager), First Energy Corp. of Ohio (a utility company), and Gunvor Group, Ltd. (registered in Cyprus and headquartered in Switzerland).
“Time and again, this company has proven it is unwilling to follow the law or show any respect or decency to this community,” said Steve Charter, a member of Northern Plains Resource Council who ranches above the mine. “Signal Peak has destroyed my wells, damaged and destroyed vital springs, and used underhanded tactics to disrupt my ranch and try to force me off of my land. Laws must be enforced, and this criminal activity must be stopped.”
The complaint was filed with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation, and Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The document details the mine’s continuing practice of bullying and harassing local landowners and failing to meet its legal responsibilities to protect water resources for wildlife and ranching. Earthjustice, Montana Environmental Information Center, Northern Plains Resource Council, Sierra Club, Western Environmental Law Center, and WildEarth Guardians filed the complaint, requesting an investigation and putting a stop to mining until the mine meets the requirements of the law and its mining permit.
“Signal Peak was called a ‘den of thievery’ by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a very good reason,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The federal government has successfully prosecuted the company for its long history of criminal wrongdoing including cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, worker safety and environmental violations, embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering. In light of this history, it’s unconscionable for the government to continue to turn a blind eye to the mine’s severe impacts on water resources in the area.”
While that sordid criminal history was detailed in a prior filing by conservation groups, the most recent complaint’s primary focus is on the seriousness of water damages, failure to reclaim these damages, and failure to comply with permit requirements. The dewatering of local springs referenced throughout the complaint will have broad and lasting impacts on the economic and environmental health of the Bull Mountain area.
“Signal Peak’s reckless behavior regarding drugs, guns, bribes, and fraud is scary enough,” said Ellen Pfister, a Northern Plains Resource Council member and retired rancher whose property and water have been damaged by mining activity. “But the destruction to this region’s aquifer may be even scarier. Without viable water sources, this area cannot support people, vegetation, wildlife, or livestock. Are agencies going to sit back, fail to enforce laws, and sacrifice all of that for the sake of one company’s profits?”
Evidence of water damage cited in the report includes the destruction of sources relied upon by wildlife and agriculture. The mine has failed to monitor, document, and assess mining impacts on local hydrology as both state and federal law require.
“The Office of Surface Mining and Montana Department of Environmental Quality have a responsibility to take action against Signal Peak Energy to ensure its operations comply with the law,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office. “Surrounding communities have suffered for far too long due to the lack of enforcement for this serial offender. Holding Signal Peak accountable will protect both the region’s water sources and the livelihoods of ranchers and residents. It is time for agencies to ask themselves what matters more — a criminally-convicted coal company or the communities they are supposed to protect.”