News

PRESS RELEASE: Bull Mountain residents respond to federal criminal sentencing of Signal Peak Energy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 31, 2022

Bull Mountain rancher and Northern Plains board member, Steve Charter.

BILLINGS, Mont. – Today, Federal District Court Judge Timothy Cavan levied sentencing for Signal Peak Energy after the Roundup-based underground coal mine pleaded guilty to criminal charges in October of last year. Signal Peak admitted to willfully violating health and safety standards, the details of which include the illegal dumping of toxic slurry waste and bribing one of their employees to refrain from reporting a workplace injury that resulted in the partial amputation of a finger. 

A DOJ press release from last year noted that this prosecution was “part of a broad corruption investigation into mine management and operations.” The same press release notes the investigation also produced “individual convictions and charges from some former mine officials and associates for embezzlement, tax evasion, bank fraud, money laundering, drugs, and firearms violations.”

In their plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a total fine of $1 million, or $250,000 for four counts of conviction. Five years of probation was also recommended. Judge Cavan today handed down a sentence mostly in line with these recommendations. He levied the $1 million total fine but opted for a smaller three-year probation sentence. 

In remarks during the hearing, Judge Cavan noted his hope that this sentence would “protect the public from further harm.” In speaking about the expansive criminal charges against Signal Peak and individual officers, Cavan also said that Signal Peak “cannot slough this off as the actions of a few bad actors.”

Local residents in Montana’s Bull Mountains, where the Signal Peak Mine is situated, have long had to contend with water depletion for ranching operations, massive property damage in the form of sunken, cracked land (subsidence), and pressure from Signal Peak representatives to sell their land.

Steve Charter, a cattle rancher and Chair of the Bull Mountain Land Alliance, a local affiliate of Northern Plains Resource Council, said, “The toxic culture of this mining company is very disturbing to the people of the Bull Mountain Land Alliance, people who ranch and live near the Signal Peak mine. They have shown blatant disregard for the law, the environment, and their neighbors.”

“The promise that was made when this mine was granted a permit was that coal and agriculture could coexist,” continued Charter. “It was acknowledged that damage would occur but the company would take responsibility and mitigate the damage. What we got instead is the company denying responsibility for their damage to the water, resisting that responsibility for water replacement, and actively making our ranching operation difficult. Now they are trying to force us to sell our land to them. Signal Peak Energy is now transitioning to new leadership of the company. We hope this is a move to more responsible leadership and that we could have better relations in the future.”

Another local resident responded to today’s sentencing. 

“We’re glad to see that DOJ and EPA are tracking Signal Peak’s activities, and where they break the law they are being called to account,” said Ellen Pfister, a board member of Northern Plains Resource Council who lives in the Bull Mountains and used to ranch adjacent to the mine. “I am most disappointed that, in addition to hiding their employee safety records, they have also been able to get away with illegal dumping of chemical waste in their mine operations for so many years.”

Signal Peak has taken early steps to indicate a possible expansion of operations in the Bull Mountains. At this time, it is uncertain how this criminal sentencing could impact the company’s future decisions.

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