A federal judge in Montana District Court has halted the mining of federal coal at Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountains Underground Coal Mine near Roundup, pending a thorough analysis of the mine’s impacts on ranchers, vital water sources, and the surrounding environment. The decision will require the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to prepare an environmental impact statement to determine whether to allow a proposed 175-million-ton expansion to proceed. In approving the expansion, the Trump administration’s OSM largely ignored the impacts.
“Instead of watching our backs, the Montana DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) stabbed this community in the back by letting Signal Peak Energy recklessly violate land, water, safety, and worker protections for years,” said Steve Charter, who ranches above the underground mine in the Bull Mountains. “After the mine damaged my water sources, DEQ failed to uphold laws requiring Signal Peak to adequately replace water vital to my livestock and ranch, putting my entire operation in jeopardy. The promise when granting this mine permit was that ranching and coal mining could coexist. That promise was broken by DEQ, OSM, and Signal Peak. Hopefully the court’s actions can help restore trust that future promises will be honored.”
In April, 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.
“Ranching operations and wildlife are threatened because government agencies continue to ignore the severe harm the mine is causing to water resources and the environment,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “We are grateful that the court has agreed to uphold the law and rein in this out-of-control company that has shown utter disregard for hard-working Montana ranchers, wildlife, and critical water resources.”
Signal Peak has destroyed precious water resources above the mine and has attempted to force local ranchers out of the Bull Mountains. Ranchers and wildlife in the Bull Mountains depend entirely on the 0.1% of the area that contains springs, wells, and ponds. Surface subsidence (cave-ins) from the underground mine has torn cracks and crevasses through the Bull Mountains, causing springs and wells to go dry and imperiling all who use the area. Additionally, in an apparent effort to evade reclamation obligations, Signal Peak has canceled ranchers’ leases and harassed ranchers to the extent that some have abandoned ranching in the area.
“The court’s order brings long-sought accountability to a mine that has operated with utter disregard for area ranchers and the water supplies they depend on for decades,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Signal Peak’s bad behavior has driven this community to the brink — we hope this outcome represents a turning point for families who have worked and looked after this land for generations.”
Wayne M. Boich of Dublin, Ohio manages Signal Peak on behalf of the three corporate owners: EnergyFirst, a utility company based in Akron, Ohio; Gunvor Group, a foreign trading company based on the island of Cyprus; and WMB Marketing Ventures based in Dublin, Ohio. Coal from the mine is shipped overseas to fuel power plants in Japan, South Korea, and Chile.
“This is a major victory for a community that has endured both environmental harm and bullying from Signal Peak for far too long,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office. “For years, this mine has been a den of lawlessness and a blight on the entire region, impacting ranchers’ water sources and livelihoods. The government has failed to protect the surrounding community and a thorough analysis of the mine’s impacts must change that.”
The New York Times recently reported on the corruption and criminal history surrounding Signal Peak Energy. Along with impacts to local ranchers, the story reveals embezzlement, a fake kidnapping, bribery, cocaine trafficking, firearms violations, past links to Vladimir Putin, and worker safety and environmental infringements connected to the mine.
“This has been a long time coming. This community has borne the brunt of the mine’s impacts and its lawlessness for years,” said Nathaniel Shoaff, senior attorney with Sierra Club. “It’s long past time for the federal government to put the interests of ranching families ahead of the profit margins of international mining corporations.”
“We are cognizant of the fact that the EPA has just revised the social cost of carbon to nearly $200/ton. In Montana we see this rogue mine’s production as a clear threat to what makes Montana the ‘last best place’ on the planet,” said Jeff Smith, co-chair of 350 Montana. “As Dr. James Hansen pointed out in this case, the harm that will result over the next decade from this mine expansion is estimated to be about $44 billion. We are already seeing these costs to our rivers and streams, to our wheat, barley, and cattle production, to our forests, and to our burgeoning recreation economy. That’s why this victory is so significant.”
Earthjustice, Western Environmental Law Center, and Sierra Club are representing 350 Montana, Montana Environmental Information Center, WildEarth Guardians, and Sierra Club in the suit.