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Bull Mountain Coal Mine

A federal court on Tuesday ruled that the Trump administration wrongly authorized the expansion of the Bull Mountain Underground Coal Mine, owned by Signal Peak Energy, near Roundup, Montana. (Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Twitter)

Federal Court Rejects Coal Mine Expansion Unlawfully Authorized by Trump

"This is now a huge opportunity for the Biden administration to get it right on coal and climate," said one advocate.

Julia Conley

Environmental defenders on Tuesday urged the Biden administration to take advantage of a federal court ruling which declared that the U.S. Interior Department under former President Donald Trump had wrongly allowed the expansion of a coal mine in Montana—one that would have resulted in the largest coal mine in the U.S. and hundreds of millions of tons of fossil fuel emissions over a decade.

With the question of the expansion of Signal Peak Energy's Bull Mountain Coal Mine now headed back to the Interior Department, said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, which joined other groups in suing over the expansion, "this is now a huge opportunity for the Biden administration to get it right on coal and climate."

"This mine is killing the climate and destroying the waters of the Bull Mountains... Today's decision puts an end to federal agencies' flimsy excuses for ignoring these grave impacts and ensures decision makers fully consider the mine's damage."

The department's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) decided in 2017 that Signal Peak Energy could expand the coal mine, allowing for the extraction of 175 million more tons of coal and the release of 240 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 11 years—more emissions than those of any other single source in the country.

The OSM's approval was quickly challenged by a federal court that same year, which found administration officials had put a "thumb on the scale" by only considering potential benefits of the mine expansion instead of considering negative impacts. The following year, the OSM completed an environmental assessment which claimed the new emissions resulting from the expansion would be insignificant compared to global greenhouse gas emissions, which stand at 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.

The Interior Department offered "no convincing rationale" for that finding, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday in a 2-1 decision.

If a project resulting in the largest underground coal mine in the U.S. "can be found to have no significant impact," wrote Circuit Judge Morgan Christen in the majority opinion, "virtually every domestic source of [greenhouse gases] may be deemed to have no significant impact."

Following the court ruling, the case will be remanded to the District Court, which could order further analysis of the mine's environmental impacts and may shut down the expansion until the assessment is completed.

The plaintiffs—Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, 350 Montana, and Montana Environmental Information Center—had sought a full injunction, but said the ruling was "a significant victory against one of the largest coal mine expansions in the country" nonetheless.

"Moving forward, this ruling will also require the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to actually consider the extreme costs of continuing to burn coal and release carbon pollution into the atmosphere when it is conducting environmental analyses," said Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. "It's long past time for OSM to get serious about the climate crisis."

The ruling came two months after Signal Peak was fined $1 million and sentenced to three years of probation for violating environmental and worker safety regulations. The company's senior managers ordered mine workers to improperly dispose of mine waste and pressured injured employees not to report their injuries—including one that required a finger amputation—as work-related.

"This mine is killing the climate and destroying the waters of the Bull Mountains," said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney for Earthjustice. "Its owner, Signal Peak Energy, has a lengthy criminal rap sheet. Today's decision puts an end to federal agencies' flimsy excuses for ignoring these grave impacts and ensures decision makers fully consider the mine's damage."

Following the ruling, said Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, the Biden administration has "a chance to do the right thing and start keeping coal in the ground."


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