A coalition of conservation and environmental organizations is alleging that a central Montana coal mine has failed to reclaim land it’s mined, creating safety hazards for landowners, livestock and firefighters, and compromising the productive use of agricultural properties. Those allegations are outlined in a 20-page petition 11 groups submitted earlier this month to the federal government, seeking its intervention.
At issue is the Bull Mountains Mine, an underground coal-mining operation near the community of Roundup. Signal Peak Energy has operated the mine, which was the second-most productive coal mine in the state last year, for about 15 years. The 7 to 8 million tons of coal pulled out of the Bull Mountains annually are exported to foreign markets via a shipping terminal in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The petitioners, which include Northern Plains Resource Council, Montana Environmental Information Center, 350 Montana and Citizens for Clean Energy, argue that Signal Peak’s longwall mining operation, which involves excavating the Mammoth coal seam in miles-long panels, has created subsidence cracks in the earth, some of them several feet across, dozens of feet deep and hundreds of meters long. State regulators have not investigated citizen claims regarding inadequate or nonexistent remediation efforts and have “not taken any meaningful action” to address problems raised by landowners, the petitioners allege. They also allege that the company has bullied and intimidated landowners in order to “evade enforcement burdens by forcing residents off the land” in violation of federal and state mining laws.
Signal Peak has denied any wrongdoing.
The groups are asking the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement to investigate the mine itself or direct the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to grant the citizen inspection request within 10 days. After the inspection, the petitioners would like OSMRE to halt Signal Peak’s operation until the company complies with federal and state laws.
“If immediate action is not taken, Signal Peak’s continued blatant violations of its legal obligations to reclaim land impacted by its mining activities will force ranchers and wildlife alike to desert the Bull Mountains,” the petition reads.
In an emailed statement, Northern Plains Resource Council member and Roundup-area rancher Steve Charter said that while the subsidence cracks may be an “inevitable” feature of underground mining, they’re also a “fixable” one.
“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,” Charter said.
In a Feb. 10 ruling, a Missoula judge found that the federal government’s environmental review of Signal Peak Energy’s proposal to expand the Bull Mountains Mine harbored “sufficiently serious” errors. The order effectively halts Signal Peak from mining federal coal until an environmental impact statement has been completed.
This is the third time petitioners have presented concerns related to Signal Peak’s operation to mining regulators in the past two years, according to Shiloh Hernandez, an Earthjustice attorney representing the petitioners. Earlier petitions seeking the federal government’s investigation into unsafe mining practices and harm to the water quality didn’t garner investigations by federal regulators, Hernandez said, even though “Signal Peak has proven itself to be a uniquely bad actor.” A fourth petition sought the U.S. Justice Department’s intervention in alleged illegal activities committed by Signal Peak executives.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for DEQ said the agency conducts monthly mine inspections to assess compliance with statutes, rules and Signal Peak’s permits.
“DEQ has asked some of the local complainants to provide locations of alleged subsidence so that those areas can be visited by DEQ staff at the next monthly inspection and assessed against the statutes, rules and permit,” DEQ spokesperson Moira Davin said, adding that the agency responded to the prior complaints.
DEQ’s federal counterpart “vastly agreed with DEQs response to those complaints,” Davin continued. “The few recommendations provided by OSMRE to DEQ have been addressed. Those complaints are now closed.”
In an email, Signal Peak President and CEO Parker Phipps described the complaint as “the most recent attempt to impede DEQ’s and OSM’s important oversight work and to interfere with Signal Peak’s business.”
“Indeed, four separate complaints over the past year have not resulted in a single notice of violation, fine, or cessation order directed to Signal Peak,” Phipps said. “To the contrary, DEQ has repeatedly held that these complaints are ‘procedurally inappropriate’ and lack any legitimate factual support, and that Signal Peak has acted lawfully and in strict compliance with its mining permits and associated environmental obligations.”
Signal Peak Energy’s plans for the Bull Mountains Mine have surfaced in other arenas as well.
A federal judge sided with Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club in an order revoking Signal Peak’s federally administered mining plan this February due to climate-change related concerns. The order restricts the company’s access to federally owned minerals pending a resubmission of its permit.
In the legislative arena, state lawmakers loosened laws governing regulatory review of coal mine expansions. One measure lawmakers passed this spring allows coal mining companies to expand their operation without public comment or DEQ conducting an extensive environmental review so long as the expansion is smaller than 320 acres and “does not significantly increase the impact of the permitted disturbance.”
Earlier this year, the New York Times published a story outlining criminal investigations into mine operations and Signal Peak executives. Illegal activities referenced in the investigation range from embezzlement and cocaine trafficking to bribes to prevent injured employees from reporting their injuries to federal safety regulators.
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