Of coal and cows in eastern Montana


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

As the Montana Department of Environmental Quality mulls an expansion of a coal strip mine east of Billings, the public has an opportunity to give input on what environmental factors the agency should consider.

Chugging away in the northern corner of the well-endowed Powder River Basin, the Rosebud mine is a 25,000-acre complex. Operators extract 12.3 million tons of coal annually, on average. Nearly all of that feeds the nearby 2,100-megawatt Colstrip Power Station, which supplies electricity to parts of Montana, Oregon and Washington. The expansion would encompass approximately 6,800 additional acres and would extend the life of the mine by roughly 19 years.

This comment period offers a chance to step back and look at the state of coal mining and environmental protection in Montana, and what future Westerners envision for the two.

It’s estimated that one-quarter of this country’s recoverable coal lies in Montana, but most of it remains un-mined because, in addition to some of the coal being low quality, it is pricey to extract and to transport. Given that, and the fact that U.S. coal consumption is at a 40-year low due to the natural gas boom, one may wonder why the Westmoreland Coal Company is choosing now to expand its output at the Rosebud mine.

In one word: exports. Even as coal plants are shuttered here, elsewhere they are coming on line by the dozen each week. U.S. coal exports hit a 20-year high last year with 107 million tons of coal exported primarily to Asia and Europe, and the international demand for coal is projected to rise 65 percent over the next two decades.

Rosebud’s planned expansion represents a bet that overseas sales could counteract the industry’s nosedive here. With 120 billion tons of coal yet to harvest, and a relative proximity to at least five deep water ports in the Pacific Northwest that are being eyed as potential export terminals, Montana is well-positioned to feed those coal hungry countries.

But many eastern Montana ranchers, who live off the surface resources in the area fret over what will become of their livelihoods in the shadow of the mines. The area's streams are important to them for watering their cattle, and they use the shallow underground aquifers to irrigate their hay. The ranchers have a problem, in particular, with how much water is being used by the coal operations, and the quality of water that’s left over. Their concern is based on what they see as the lackluster protection record of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which issues mining permits.

Rancher Clint McRae, whose family has raised cattle for 130 years between Colstrip and Otter Creek (another coal deposit the state recently leased for $86 million), has suffered contamination from leaking coal ash ponds and low-nutrient grass on so-called ‘reclaimed’ mine sites. He told the Oregonian recently, “I am expected to sacrifice our operation so a for-profit company can take my land to haul coal to China. I'll fight that tooth and nail.”

This sounds like a harsh assessment of the Montana DEQ. Current director Richard Opper has said, though, he is willing to address problems, should they occur. In addition to confirming that its his agency’s job is to protect surface and groundwater resources from mining pollution, Opper recently said, “If we think that their accusations that we are dropping the ball are accurate and we can do a better job. We’ll find ways to do a better job.”

As public confidence continues to erode, the ranchers, as well as a group of sportsmen and conservationists are now fighting the Rosebud expansion with the help of the Western Environmental Law Center. It says of the suit, “The issue is bigger than just this one coal mine—Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has repeatedly issued coal-mining permits without properly considering the effects on water quality and quantity, as is required by law.”

So, what should Montana DEQ consider in this first phase of preparing an environmental impact statement for an expansion of the Rosebud mine? Rancher Clint McRae may have said it best: “Water is my life. Without it, I don’t run cattle, I don’t ranch, I don’t have a business. And so far, the state regulators who are supposed to be protecting our waterways seem to be asleep at the switch.” 

Comments on the expansion must be received by November 5.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of coal in Montana courtesy business.mt.gov

Image of Rosebud mine in Montana courtesy the Smithsonian

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