GREAT FALLS, Mont.— Conservation groups sued the Trump administration today to challenge a massive Powder River Basin coal-mining plan 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.
The lawsuit says the Bureau of Land Management’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 lawsuit says. Today’s lawsuit also says the Bureau failed to tell the public the true extent of the harm caused by coal combustion, including the deadly particulate matter and toxic pollution emitted from burning coal.
“The Bureau of Land Management’s actions here are both telling and troubling,” said Shiloh Hernandez, an 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 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. Despite declining demand for coal nationwide, the land-management plans anticipate 6 billion tons of coal to be mined over 20 years.
The management plans come as the coal market is in dire financial condition. Years of declining production and bankruptcies have led major coal companies 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 today’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Montana, on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, Sierra Club, 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. “The 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,” said 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.”
“At a time when our skies are full of smoke from out-of-control wildfires, the public deserves to know how much pollution will be produced by burning fossil fuels extracted from publicly owned land,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This is not the time for another rubber stamp for the fossil fuel industry - we need honesty and transparency from federal regulators.”
“The Trump administration has utterly failed to come clean with the public about the dangers of coal mining,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Ignoring the dire consequences of coal mining will come at a steep cost to public health, wildlife and our climate. Sadly, the Bureau of Land Management seems hellbent on turning Wyoming and Montana into sacrifice zones to benefit this industry.”
“Under the banner of climate denial, the Trump administration is again selling out huge swaths of public lands to fossil fuels,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “With this latest lawsuit, we’re taking direct aim at this corrupt attempt to sacrifice our climate, health and lands in a desperate attempt to bail out the dying coal industry.”