Judge says permit for coal mine didn't analyze environmental harm

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal agency failed to adequately analyze the environmental harm that could be caused by increasing the size of a southeastern Montana coal mine that feeds a nearby power plant before approving an expansion permit, U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan has ruled.

Cavan’s findings, released on Feb. 11, recommend that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement correct its violations of the National Environmental Policy Act within a year or the court should revoke the June 2019 permit to expand the Rosebud Mine near Colstrip.

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters in Billings must approve Cavan’s recommendation for it to take effect, the Montana Environmental Information Center said.

MEIC and others filed a lawsuit in November 2019 arguing that the federal Environmental Impact Statement issued for the proposed mine expansion only generally acknowledged the mine would contribute to long-term cumulative impacts on surface water along with the soil disturbance at the mine site.

Cavan found that while the EIS calculated economic benefits of the expansion — including continued jobs, maintaining the tax base, royalty payments and supporting local businesses — it failed to monetize the environmental harm of burning another nearly 71 million tons of coal and did not analyze the use of additional water from the Yellowstone River. The Office of Surface Mining did not explain why it didn’t include those calculations, Cavan wrote.

The Colstrip Power Plant burns coal to boil water, producing steam that spins a generator to create electricity.

The Rosebud Mine is the only source of coal for the Colstrip Power Plant, making the power plant’s greenhouse gas emissions and water use a foreseeable effect of the mine expansion, according to the court’s findings.

“The bottom line is the Office of Surface Mining completely and illegally ignored the true costs of mining and burning 70.8 million tons of coal,” said Jeff Smith, co-chair of the clean energy group 350 Montana, one of the plaintiffs. “What this ruling means is coal companies can’t ignore what we Montanans see with our own eyes: dying rivers and streams, megafires and months of choking smoke and our extended drought.”

Cavan did not recommend revoking the expansion permit immediately because the rest of the coal mine is not depleted, so revoking the permit wouldn’t have an immediate effect on emissions or water use at the power plant. The Office of Surface Mining may also be able to correct the deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Statemen, Cavan said.

Westmoreland, the Colorado-based corporation that owns Rosebud Mining, did not return a phone message seeking comment on Feb. 17.

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