Montana Coal Mining Found Illegal

Court Ruling Latest to Condemn Interior Department's Failure to Account for Climate Impacts, Public Interest

Billings – A federal Magistrate today found that a coal mining plan in southeastern Montana was illegally approved, upholding a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of the Interior’s failure to include the public and safeguard the environment.

"This ruling is another victory for the American public, for our climate, and for our clean air," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' Climate and Energy Program Director. "It’s also another sign that the federal government needs to stop issuing more coal mining approvals and reform its management of our publicly owned coal so that our health and environment come first in the American West." 

The ruling affirms a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians challenging the Interior Department’s approval of an expansion of the Spring Creek coal mine, the largest in Montana. Guardians’ suit targeted the failure of Interior to provide any public notice of its decision and to account for the environmental impacts of expanded mining before issuing its approval.

In a recommendation handed down today, a Magistrate Judge agreed with WildEarth Guardians. The Judge found that in 2012, Interior illegally ignored the public and failed to account for and disclose the impacts of mining, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

It’s the latest milestone in holding the Interior Department accountable to the climate impacts of coal mining approvals. Although the Obama Administration is working to reduce carbon emissions, Interior is approving more coal mining throughout the western U.S., which threatens to undermine efforts to combat climate change. 

Reports have found that Interior Department coal approvals, most in the American West, contribute to 40% of all coal produced in the nation and nearly 12% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Interior’s coal approvals have been called a “blind spot” in the Obama Administration’s efforts to combat climate change.

“We can’t mine our way to a safe climate,” said Nichols. “This ruling is an opportunity for the Secretary of the Interior to move on bold reforms to ensure our nation is on track to combat climate change, reduce carbon, and open the door for clean energy.”

The Magistrate stopped short recommending that the Spring Creek mine be shut down. Instead, the order recommended that Interior be given 180 days—or six months—to fix its mistakes. Otherwise, the 2012 approval would be nullified and mining forced to stop. 

Although the Magistrate’s recommendation must be adopted by a Judge before it becomes an enforceable ruling, it is expected that the Magistrate’s opinion will be upheld.

The recommendation has far-reaching implications. It’s the latest to overturn an Interior Department mining decision over the agency’s failure to account for the impacts of coal burning. In May, WildEarth Guardians secured a ruling against Interior’s approval of a mine expansion in northwest Colorado. In March, a federal judge in Colorado overruled a coal mining approval in New Mexico. And in 2014, WildEarth Guardians and other groups successfully stopped an Interior-approved coal mining plan in western Colorado. WildEarth Guardians also has pending lawsuits over 10 additional coal mining approvals in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

This latest win underscores Interior’s chronic mismanagement of publicly owned coal throughout the nation, but especially in the West.

The Spring Creek mine is located in Big Horn County in southeastern Montana, but is only 20 miles away from Sheridan, Wyoming. In 2013, the mine was the 7th largest mine in the U.S. The mine fuels power plants throughout the U.S. and exports coal through ports in the Pacific Northwest overseas to Asia.


 

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