BILLINGS – Federal officials must re-examine a 117 million-ton expansion of an eastern Montana coal mine after a judge sided with environmentalists who sued over the project's potential to make climate change worse and cause other environmental damage.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters gave the Interior Department nine months to look again at the proposal for the Cloud Peak Energy's Spring Creek mine near Decker, along the Wyoming border. In its prior review, the agency "failed to take a hard look" at the expansion, Watters wrote Thursday.
One of the plaintiffs in the case, WildEarth Guardians, is pursuing legal challenges against the coal industry that affect 11 mines in five states. The group has highlighted how burning coal contributes to climate change.
Watters' decision follows similar rulings affecting two mines in Colorado and setbacks to the industry from company bankruptcies and falling domestic and international demand for coal.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell imposed a moratorium last week on new coal sales from public lands pending a three-year review of the program. That could tie up two other expansions sought by Cloud Peak Energy, a second one at Spring Creek and one at its Antelope mine near Gillette, Wyoming. Those combined involve more than 600 million tons of coal.
Canceling the permit for the Spring Creek expansion covered by Watters' ruling would trigger layoffs for most of the mine's 275 workers, Cloud Peak Energy has warned. The project would keep mining going at least through 2022.
Company spokesman Rick Curtsinger said Friday that the judge's decision was disappointing but mining will continue as it assists federal officials on the review.
The government violated public notice provisions in its handling of Cloud Peak's mining application, Watters said in her ruling.
The application was handled by the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. Messages left for an agency spokesman were not returned Friday.
Much of the judge's findings were in line with recommendations from U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby, who reviewed the case last year. But Watters' nine-month deadline is three months longer than Ostby recommended, which came after government officials said they needed more time to finish the required work.
Watters ordered monthly updates on the Interior Department's progress and said the deadline could be extended if necessary.
The two other plaintiffs in the case – the Northern Plains Resource Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils – had claimed in part that Cloud Peak did not successfully restore previously mined lands.
"It seems like there's no correlation that they have to do any reclamation before they get a new permit. That's seems like it's something that should be looked at," said Mark Fix, a Northern Plains member and rancher south of Miles City.