Groups appeal state’s decision to allow coal mine expansion near Colstrip – Daily Montanan

Two environmental groups are hoping history won’t repeat itself.

The Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club have challenged a massive expansion of the Westmoreland Coal Mining permit that was approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for Rosebud County. Westmoreland’s coal mining operation there is the sole provider of coal that feeds the Colstrip Power Plant. Owners of the plant are looking to close the plant by the end of 2025.

The groups have filed an appeal with the Montana Board of Environmental Review, which will review the decision. State law says that only mining companies can take a DEQ decision directly to court without first having a review by the Board of Environmental Quality. State law also says that an appeal will not stop the approval granted by the DEQ, meaning the expansion can move forward while the appeal is still pending.

Anne Hedges, the director of policy and legislative affairs at MEIC, said that her organization challenged a similar expansion approved by the DEQ during the Steve Bullock administration in 2015, and that decision is still tied up in the courts. The MEIC won the case at the district court level, despite rulings by the DEQ and the Board of Environmental Quality against it. The dispute, which has been ongoing for seven years, has not stopped the expansion or the mining nearby in Rosebud County.

The latest challenge, filed on Tuesday, could also take years. It says that the DEQ has failed to adequately consider the nearby streams and water that would be affected by the increased mining activity.

The permit allows for the mine to add more than 9,100 acres, which would give Westmoreland Mining access to an additional 62.3 million tons of coal.

“The recent expansions at this mine increase the harm to area waters that agricultural producers and wildlife will depend on long after the mine is no longer operating,” said the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Mine officials could not be reached Tuesday by voicemail for comment.

The appeal, which is required before any litigation, states that the Montana DEQ has not provided an adequate buffer for prairie streams and the department has refused to consider the impact climate change is having on the area.

“We are feeling the impacts of drought and flooding in Montana, and now the DEQ is looking to allow unnecessary water contamination,” said David Merrill of the Sierra Club.

However, fighting this expansion could be a process that takes years, Hedges said. While individuals and groups looking to challenge the DEQ are required by law to go through the appeals process with the Board of Environmental Review, there are no regulations as to how quickly the state and the citizen board may debate or decide the issue.

“When you talk about government not working efficiently, you should really take a look at the Board of Environmental Review,” Hedges said. “It is a most inefficient system.”

The other challenge, as is the case in the MEIC’s successful challenge of another part of the Rosebud mining expansion, is how to remedy a decision. For example, if a coal mining permit was unlawfully allowed, and a court later agrees, how does the state reverse a decision in which coal has been mined and consumed?

“You waste years and years, and you waste resources,” Hedges said. “This is a vestige of a bygone era. The cards are stacked against the public. It’s absurd that there’s expansion in a place where we just won. I think there’s an interest in just seeing if they can wear us out.”

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