Late last week, conservation groups filed a complaint with state and federal agencies against Signal Peak Energy, operator of the Bull Mountains Coal Mine north of Billings. The complaint cites evidence of the mine causing unreclaimed subsidence cracks (photos for media use) that have damaged lands in and adjacent to Signal Peak’s permit area. Signal Peak is failing to comply with permit requirements to reclaim lands affected by this subsidence including failures to protect topsoil and vegetation. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has failed to issue notices of violation or cessation orders when citizens and inspections have identified these violations.
“These treacherous cracks on my land are an inevitable part of underground mining, and they risk serious injury to people, cattle, wildlife, and even wildland firefighters, who were just here in the Bulls only a couple of years back,” said Steve Charter, a third-generation rancher and member of Northern Plains Resource Council. “However, these cracks are fixable, and state law requires timely repairs. Unfortunately, DEQ has failed to uphold its responsibility to require prompt fixes, and that lack of enforcement threatens local livelihoods and public safety as coal corporations are allowed to push off their repair obligations for decades.”
The groups requested that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) perform a federal inspection of this mine or require DEQ to grant citizen inspections within 10 days. Following the inspection, the groups asked OSMRE to issue a cessation order to Signal Peak requiring the company halt operations at the Bull Mountains Mine until it complies with the law.
This illegal land degradation is damaging the region’s agricultural heritage. Already, two long-time ranching families have left the Bull Mountains under pressure from the mine. Signal Peak has forced another rancher out of the Bull Mountains by canceling a private grazing lease on the mine’s surface land. And the company is in the process of attempting to force one of the few remaining ranchers in the Bull Mountains off of his own land through bullying, harassment, and litigation threats.
“For years, the mining company has failed to properly repair areas and completely ignored others,” said Ellen Pfister, a former ranch owner in the Bulls. “In some circumstances, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has allowed Signal Peak to write its own special exemptions from reclaiming land altogether. This failure to uphold the state’s primacy under federal law permanently prevents this land from being used to its full potential for ranching, development, or wildlife, robbing the state of Montana of future tax dollars.”
“The law clearly states that coal mining may only take place if it does not decrease the productivity of the land,” said Barbara Chillcott, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The land must remain capable of supporting existing or higher land uses. Signal Peak’s failure to promptly repair lands that are cracking wide open and refusal to protect irreplaceable topsoil clearly violate the law. The company’s attempts to force residents off the land rather than face the music is not only another legal violation—it is true villainy.”
“Signal Peak is destroying the Bull Mountains, making the lands unworkable and life intolerable for family ranchers, all in exchange for fast profits for the mine’s out-of-state owners,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office. “The company is failing in its legal duty to reclaim lands impacted by the mine and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is failing to hold a serial offender accountable. The surrounding community will continue to suffer most from Signal Peak’s lawlessness and DEQ’s indifference.”
While a federal court invalidated Signal Peak’s federal mining plan on Feb. 10, 2023, the company is still obligated to repair the damage the Bull Mountains Coal Mine has caused to these lands. This year, the New York Times 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 violations by the mine and its owners.
The Western Environmental Law Center and Earthjustice filed the complaint on behalf of Citizens for Clean Energy, 350 Montana, Families for a Livable Climate, Moms Clean Air Force, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Environmental Information Center, Montana Health Professionals for a Livable Climate, Northern Plains Resource Council, Park County Environmental Council, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians. The groups filed the complaint with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.