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Judge OKs Giant Coal Mine in Montana

BILLINGS, Mont. (CN) - The Bureau of Land Management took the required "hard look" at the environmental impacts of a 130 million ton coal mining project in Montana, a federal judge ruled.

At issue the more than 130 million tons of coal targeted for commercial mining by Signal Peak Energy in Montana's Bull Mountains.

The mountain range in south central Montana between Roundup and Billings features rugged terrain with pine-covered ridges and flat-topped buttes with steep slopes. The Bull Mountains rise to about 4,700 feet, and provide habitat for a wide range of animal species, including big-game such as mule deer and elk.

Coal has been mined there since 1932, due in large part to the quality of the coal, which has a high heat value and low mercury content.

Signal Peak acquired a lease to mine coal on 3,670 acres of federally owned land in 2008 and applied for a lease for another 2,679 acres that year "to extend the life of the mine." The new lease would give the company access to coal on federal, state and private lands.

Both Signal Peak and the BLM conceded that "long-mining" - the practice of carving pillar-supported underground hallways - would result in surface subsidence, which causes slope failure, surface cracking and rock toppling. It could also endanger grazing livestock and affect the flow and supply of water at wells and springs, which are critical to ranchers.

Despite those concessions, the BLM's environmental assessment resulted in a Finding of No Significant Impact and its approved Signal Peak's lease application in April 2011.

Northern Plains Resource Council appealed, but the Department of the Interior Board of Land Appeals affirmed the BLM finding in October 2012.

Northern Plains sued on May 14, 2014, under the National Environmental Policy Act, and asked the court to overturn the board's decision and void Signal Peak's lease.

Northern Plains sought summary judgment in June 2015, saying the BLM should have prepared a proper Environmental Impact Statement, that its Environmental Assessment was inadequate, that it failed to assess cumulative impacts of the project and that both the board and the BLM failed to consider "a reasonable range of alternatives."

The defendants filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters denied the bulk of Northern Plains' claims on March 31.

"The Court finds that the board correctly determined that BLM did not act arbitrarily or capriciously when it issued a FONSI instead of preparing an EIS," she wrote a 40-page order. "BLM took a hard look at the 'significance factors' and made an informed decision that the lease's effects are not significant as defined by the CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) regulations. Since BLM reasonably evaluated the factors, this court is required to defer to its conclusion that an EIS is not required."

Watters agreed with Northern Plains, however, that the BLM did not properly consider alternatives to Signal Peak's operations plan, only looking at the proposed action and the required "no action" alternative.

Northern Plains says that in addition to considering mining techniques other than long-mining, the defendants should have added stipulations, such as requiring mitigation of subsidence damage and degradation of water quality, and bonding to protect landowners and the public.

"Since the board did not consider Northern Plains' alternatives argument, the court remands the case for the limited purpose of addressing that argument," Watters wrote said.

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