Environmental groups try to block Montana mine expansion

Environmental advocacy groups launched a new attempt Thursday to halt the expansion of Montana's largest coal mine over its effects on climate change, after federal officials said it wouldn't contribute significantly to the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

WildEarth Guardians and the Montana Environmental Information Center say in their lawsuit that the U.S. Interior Department's environmental review was shoddy, and argue the federal official who authorized the Spring Creek Mine expansion didn't have the authority to do so.

"From our perspective, they fell miserably short in accounting for the environmental implications of rubber-stamping more coal mining," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program director. "It's scandalous that the coal industry seems able to survive only because of the federal government cutting corners and turning its back on climate change."

The Spring Creek Mine is the seventh-largest coal mine in the nation, and the largest in Montana. It is part of the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, which produces 40 percent of the nation's coal annually. The coal in the 1.7 square mile (4.4 square kilometer) expansion area, like most of the coal mined in the area, comes from publicly owned reserves leased to companies by the federal government.

The expansion could double Cloud Peak Energy's production of 18 million tons of coal a year from Spring Creek, according to the lawsuit. That coal would spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which would contribute to climate change and air pollution, the environmental groups argue.

It would also mean an increase in train cars carrying the coal through towns and cities on their way to market, which the environmental review didn't consider, according to the lawsuit.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift referred questions about the lawsuit to the U.S. Department of Justice. That agency did not return a request for comment.

WildEarth Guardians led a previous attempt to block the expansion when it was first proposed in 2012. In that case, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters of Billings ordered federal officials to re-examine the environmental impacts, but did not halt the expansion.

Last fall, Interior Department officials determined the expansion would have only a minor impact on the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. That prompted the new lawsuit, which argues a more thorough environmental review is needed.

This time, the groups added a new argument to their environmental claims. They say the acting field office manager who approved the expansion did not have the authority to do so.

The groups cited recent decisions that set aside approved coal leases in Wyoming and Colorado because lower-level officials had signed off on them.

In those cases, the Interior board of Land Appeals ruled that coal lease modifications could only be approved by higher-ranking officials, such as the BLM's deputy state director.