DEQ’s oversight failures in the Bull Mountains creates crisis for ranchers

As many of you know, Signal Peak Energy, the operator of the Bull Mountains Mine near Roundup, has been a reckless company. Signal Peak is currently on federal probation following criminal convictions on multiple counts regarding health, safety, and environmental violations. Despite accountability from federal prosecutors, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) allowed this reckless behavior to transpire mostly unchecked, and that pattern of lax oversight continues today.

One of the ways we see the mine escape accountability is through a process called minor permit revisions. Minor permit revisions are changes to coal mining permits that companies apply for, and these revisions are not supposed to impact things like the ability to reclaim damaged land or water once mining is complete. These minor revisions are supposed to have minimal impacts, and, therefore, do not provide opportunity for public comment and require only limited analysis by DEQ. Unfortunately, many of the over 300 “minor” permit revisions that Signal Peak has been granted do have significant impacts on the land and water of the Bull Mountains, and these revisions should have been subject to public comment and greater scrutiny by DEQ.

On multiple occasions, supposedly “minor” permit revisions have included changes to Signal Peak’s spring mitigation plan, which detail the company’s plans to replace water that it has damaged. For example, without anyone’s input, Signal Peak created an interim mitigation plan  for a spring damaged by mining activity that Bull Mountain ranch family, the Charters, depend on for their operation. The plan and permit revision inserted blatantly inaccurate information about the Charter’s water rights and use of the spring over the years, and the Charters had no opportunity to respond or revise.

Inserting inaccurate narratives about an individual in a permit is inappropriate, unnecessary, and damaging. The revision then goes on to specify that Signal Peak is only required to provide minimal and wildly inadequate amounts of water replacement, and even that is only required if the flow of water stops altogether. Specifically, the revision says Signal Peak will not be required to provide water in excess of 500 gallons per week at or near this spring location despite the fact that this spring can commonly produce up to 50,000 gallons per week. 500 gallons would only water about 2-3 cows. Over the many decades of ranching in this area, the Charters have not seen this spring completely stop running even in a particularly dry year. No one was consulted before making these revisions, and there is no clear explanation as to how the paltry number of 500 gallons came to be.

On top of this, multiple other springs have gone dry on the Charters’ property and Signal Peak and DEQ have consistently blamed this on drought, despite it being a significantly wetter year in the Bull Mountains. DEQ is not requiring replacement of these water sources. Therefore, it is simply not possible for the Charters to bring cows up to the Bull Mountains this summer where they have ranched for generations.

Similar “minor” permit revisions that impact water or directly impact people’s livelihoods have occurred at other Bull Mountain ranches. We believe that these minor permit revisions, which consistently impede adequate water reclamation, are blatant violations of state and federal law. People living near coal mines rely on Montana DEQ to provide the necessary oversight and protections to ensure mining practices are conducted responsibly. DEQ is failing to provide this oversight, and everyday people are suffering the consequences.

Take Action!

  1. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper so more people in Montana understand what is
    happening in the Bull Mountains.
  2. Write letters to Montana Senators Tester and Daines, and Representatives Rosendale and Zinke letting
    them know that DEQ’s recent behavior is unacceptable in Montana.


We need to stand up and defend our friends and neighbors in coal country. If you need support with these actions please contact Bronya at bronya@northernplains.org.

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