Montana Supreme Court vacates coal mine expansion permit – Billings Gazette

Montana Supreme Court vacates coal mine expansion permit - Billings Gazette

Montana Supreme Court Finds State Regulators Ignored Water Quality Laws for Rosebud Mine Permits

The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that state regulators overlooked water quality laws in issuing permits for expansion of the Rosebud Mine. This ruling is likely to undo the three permits granted to the mine by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality. The Rosebud Mine, which is owned by Westmoreland Mining LLC, supplies the Colstrip Power Plant. The ruling vacates the permit for the expansion of Area B at Rosebud Mine, and two additional expansions that applied the same flawed review of water impacts have also been ruled illegal.

Water Quality Issues with Rosebud Mine Explained

The mine’s damage to the upper East Fork of Armell’s Creek is part of a watershed that drains into the Yellowstone River. Montana state law requires that Armell’s be suitable for the growth and population of non-salmonid fishes and associated aquatic life. In 2015, the Department of Environmental Quality concluded that Westmoreland had prevented material damage to the creek and approved the mine expansion plan, even though state law governing strip mining should have stopped DEQ from permitting the expansion if Westmoreland did not prove that area water resources would not be affected.

Montana Supreme Court’s Findings

The justices concluded that the Board of Environmental Review mishandled several issues, including the board’s decision that a mine’s cumulative damage to water quality could not be considered when issuing new permits. The court faulted the Board of Environmental Review for getting the law wrong in several instances. The justices found that because of mining-related damages, a water body could be “99% of the way to a water-quality violation, and the new proposed operation’s small impact could be the proverbial straw to break the water-quality camel’s back”. However, still, DEQ wouldn’t deny the permit based on cumulative effects.

The Board’s Turnover and MEIC’s Position

According to Anne Hedges, MEIC’s policy and legislative affairs director, the problem with the Board of Environmental Review is the board’s turnover issues. It makes it impossible to get through a case without having to refamiliarize the quasi-judicial board with the subject matter, which results in delays and unnecessary deference to the arguments of DEQ and mining companies. “We have multiple hearing examiners over the course of a case, and we have to start over at square one every single time they switch to a different hearing examiner. So, there’s a deference to the DEQ and the mining company, regardless of what the law says. The whole thing has been rigged from the very beginning to let DEQ do whatever it wanted to do to give the mining company its permit, regardless of the law, regardless of the impact to water quality, regardless of how harmed the water already is from mining activity.”

The Aftermath of Montana Supreme Court’s Ruling

The recent Montana Supreme Court ruling found that state regulators consistently ignored water quality laws while allowing Rosebud Mine to operate, which can have long-term environmental consequences. The Board of Environmental Review must revisit several issues that they have mishandled, which includes Rosebud Mine’s cumulative damage to water quality issues when considering new permits. The court ruling will help ensure that mining companies operating in Montana follow the state’s environmental laws to protect the water quality in rivers and streams, and aquatic life that depend on them.

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