BLM Plans Govern Coal Mining of 50,000 Acres, 6 Billion Tons of Coal

Conservation groups sued the Trump administration today to challenge a massive Powder River Basin coal mining plan that the groups say ignores alternatives to coal, oil and gas leasing and fails to publicly acknowledge the harms from coal combustion, violating federal law and a 2018 court order, and forcing the coalition of conservation groups back into the courtroom.

The lawsuit says the Bureau of Land Management’s (the bureau’s) final resource management plans, covering 3.5 million acres of surface land and 15.4 million acres of federal minerals in Montana and Wyoming, violate the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately consider the public health danger from air pollution emitted by large-scale fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

A federal judge rejected the agency’s previous plan because it failed to consider alternative levels of coal, oil, and gas leasing that would reduce harm to air, land, water, wildlife, and the global climate. That problem persists in the agency’s revised plan, the groups say. Further, the bureau again failed to tell the public the true extent of the harm caused by coal combustion, in particular the deadly impacts of particulate matter and toxic pollution emitted from burning coal according to the complaint.

“The Bureau of Land Management’s actions here are both telling and troubling,” said Shiloh Hernandez, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The bureau is unwilling to reexamine its reckless commitment to large scale fossil fuel development in the Powder River Basin, yet it is also unwilling to tell the public the full truth about the extent of premature death and disease caused by this development. The fact is, air pollution from coal causes thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. every year and sickens many more. The law requires the bureau to disclose this information prior to allowing extraction of billions of tons of coal and huge volumes of oil and gas.”

The bureau’s revised final resource management plans (RMPs) for the Buffalo, Wyoming and Miles City, Montana field offices call for keeping open nearly 50,000 acres of land in the Powder River Basin for federal coal mining (and more for oil and gas drilling, which is not at issue in this legal action). Despite declining demand for coal nationwide, the RMPs anticipate 6 billion tons of coal to be mined over 20 years.

The RMPs come at a time when the coal market is in perhaps the most financially dire condition in history. Years of declining production and bankruptcies have led industry majors to shed giant strip mines and billions of dollars in mine cleanup liabilities to newcomers to the Powder River Basin with unknown financial ability to fully reclaim the land.

The Western Environmental Law Center filed the challenge in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Mont., on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians.

“The court ordered the bureau to align federal coal management with the reality of climate change and shrinking coal markets,” said Bob LeResche, a board member of both Powder River Basin Resource Council and WORC and a Powder River Basin landowner. “BLM has ignored that order. They must modify their coal management plan to operate in the broad public interest and reduce impacts to coal communities. Federal coal leasing needs to match real market demand, and minimize impacts to our air, land, water, and agriculture and other economic activity in our states.”

“As a farmer, I know the impacts from climate change are not abstract, but completely real,” said Wade Sikorski, a Northern Plains Resource Council member and Baker, Montana farmer. “Our farm, and others nearby, were just devastated by the kind of freak weather event climate scientists have long warned about. A wall of thunderstorms ran across the county, destroying our spring wheat and lentil crops and badly damaging our corn and safflower fields. At the same time, smoke from wildfires in California and parts of Montana are clouding the skies. If we don’t begin implementing clean alternatives to coal, we are risking our food security and the viability of family farms across the country.”

“Apparently the Bureau of Land Management cares more about appeasing coal, oil, and gas companies than it does about protecting public lands for all,” stated Derf Johnson, the staff attorney for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It’s clear that if this administration had its way, it would simply open the gates to industry and let them turn the land upside down, without a hard look at the environmental impacts. But that’s not what the law requires.”

Download a copy of the complaint here.