Colstrip power plant. Credit: Photo by John S. Adams/MTFP

BILLINGS — A group of environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in Billings Monday challenging the proposed expansion of the Rosebud Coal Mine, which supplies coal to the Colstrip power plant.

In June, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement approved the expansion, which will allow about 68.5 million tons of coal to be mined from 6,700 additional acres, adding eight years to the operational life of the mine, which is extended through 2038 by the expansion.

The filing argues that OSMRE violated the National Environmental Policy Act and did not adequately evaluate the effects of the expansion on surface water quality, the Yellowstone River, and greenhouse gas pollution. The complaint also alleges that OSMRE did not consider a reasonable range of alternatives to the expansion. 

“The reality on the ground is there is no justification for this mine expansion. It’s not needed, not economical, and the agencies really dropped the ball on failing to tell the truth.”

—Shiloh Hernandez, staff attorney, Western Environmental Law Center

The lawsuit was filed by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, Indian People’s Action, 350 Montana, and WildEarth Guardians.

The Rosebud Mine is the second-largest coal producer in Montana and the 18th-largest in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. The mine, which employs 421 people, is owned by Westmoreland Mining LLC, a group of creditors that purchased the mine from Westmoreland in bankruptcy court earlier this year. 

The mine’s sole customer is the Colstrip power plant. Two of Colstrip’s four units are planned to close in early 2020, and three of the plant’s four remaining owners are planning to stop buying coal from the other two units by 2027. The remaining owner is NorthWestern Energy, which supplies electricity to Montana. Mike Scott, a Billings-based senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club, said those withdrawals make an expansion of Rosebud unnecessary.

“The writing’s on the wall for what’s going to happen to Colstrip,” Scott said.

Rather than approve expansion, OSMRE should have instead proposed alternatives that help the community transition, said Shiloh Hernandez, a staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center.

“The reality on the ground is there is no justification for this mine expansion,” Hernandez said. “It’s not needed, not economical, and the agencies really dropped the ball on failing to tell the truth.”

Montana has the nation’s largest coal reserves, with about one-third of the recoverable coal in the U.S. in the state’s Powder River Basin. U.S. coal production has fallen from 1,172 million tons in 2008 to 755 million tons in 2018, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. In the Powder River Basin, production has fallen from 496 million tons to 324 million tons over the same time period. Much of that downturn is the result of power companies replacing coal fuel with cheaper natural gas, solar, and wind energy.

“The federal government keeps pretending everything is the same as it was in 1975, and that is just not true,” said Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, referencing the year when Colstrip was opened. “They should be giving an honest assessment of where things are going and how they’re affected by the transitions that are occurring in the energy market.”

Christopher Holmes, a spokesman for OSMRE, said the agency does not comment on litigation.

The plaintiffs also filed a notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act, alleging that the Rosebud expansion would harm pallid sturgeon through large-scale cumulative withdrawals of Yellowstone River water for Colstrip. A genetically distinct population of about 125 pallid sturgeon live in the Yellowstone River.

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at and follow him on Twitter.