Late Friday, billings federal district court judge Susan Watters ruled that a massive expansion of the Rosebud coal strip-mine was approved illegally.
The expansion was approved in June 2019 by the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and allowed Western Rosebud Mining, LLC (WRM) to strip-mine a new area, known as Area F.
The court ruled that OSM failed to consider the impacts from this massive expansion on water resources, the Yellowstone River, and the climate.
The expansion would allow the strip mining of an additional 6,500 acres containing about 70 million tons of coal, which would be burned almost exclusively at the Colstrip power plant and release over 100 million tons of greenhouse gases.
Burning the coal at the Colstrip Power Plant requires diverting 25,000 to 50,000 acre feet of water from the Yellowstone River each year.
“OSM has a responsibility to tell the public the truth about the harm from mining and burning coal. It continually fails to do its job despite the clear language in the law,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice.
“Under a clear-eyed, honest analysis, continued coal development is indefensible. OSM now has an opportunity and an obligation to lay out and analyze a transition at Colstrip that is just for the community and the climate.”
The court agreed with conservation groups who pointed out OSM focused on the economic benefits of the mine, while ignoring the environmental costs.
OSM’s attempt to use wordplay to avoid disclosing the overwhelming costs of the mine expansion did not negate its obligation to provide an even-handed analysis of both the costs and benefits of mining coal.
On remand, OSM will be obligated to consider a “middle ground” alternative that winds down coal-mining in Colstrip.
“This was a massive expansion of strip mining for the Colstrip plant, yet OSM largely ignored the impacts to water resources and how the expansion would contribute to the climate catastrophe that we are experiencing in Montana and across the nation,” said Derf Johnson, deputy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center.
“Water is the lifeblood of this state. The mine’s operations as well as the inevitable burning of the coal will cause irreversible harm in Montana and downstream. OSM got caught doing the bidding of the mining industry instead of doing the work of the people.”
The case, filed in November 2019, resulted from the ongoing concern that OSM ignored the profound impacts that result from strip mining such a large area and how burning that coal would contribute to the already dire climate crisis.
Area F would increase the mine size to over 30,000 acres, an area larger than Billings. The Rosebud coal mine exclusively supplies coal to the Colstrip Power Plant, which is the largest greenhouse gas polluter in Montana and one of the largest in the Western United States.