US won't fight judge who wants new look at Montana coal mine in climate lawsuit

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BILLINGS, Montana — The U.S. Interior Department won't fight a court recommendation for the agency to take a new look at the environmental effects of burning fuel from Montana's largest coal mine. Its owner warned of sweeping layoffs if mining halts.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby said in October that federal officials improperly approved a 117-million ton expansion of the Spring Creek Mine on federal leases near the Montana-Wyoming border. That was in line with prior court rulings affecting two mines in Colorado.

But re-analyzing the Montana mine will take longer than the 180 days proposed by Ostby, U.S. Justice Department attorney John Most wrote in a Friday court filing.

Most asked for eight months to do the work, after environmentalists successfully challenged the mine's approval, citing climate change and other impacts from coal mining.

A final decision is up to U.S. District Judge Susan Watters.

The 275-employee mine is owned by Cloud Peak Energy of Gillette, Wyoming. Cancelling its permit would force the mine to cut almost all its workers, Spring Creek General Manager David Schwend said in a written court declaration.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock wrote in a separate letter that a halt to mining would cost the state approximately $50 million annually in royalties and taxes. The Democrat warned of "severe impacts on the people who rely on this mine for their livelihood."

Bullock's letter was submitted to the court by Cloud Peak.

The case marks the second time conservationists have used worries over climate change to successfully challenge approval of coal mining projects in the West.

The Northern Plains Resource Council and WildEarth Guardians sued the Interior Department after it approved the mine expansion in 2012. Northern Plains also cited a lack of reclamation at the sprawling mine site, located in an arid area just outside the Crow Indian Reservation.

A similar case in which federal officials were forced by the court to reconsider mining plans involved the Colowyo and the Trapper mines, both in Colorado. After a re-examination of the Colowyo mine, Interior officials determined that burning coal to produce electricity there had "insignificant impacts" on national greenhouse gas emissions and moderate effects on emissions in Colorado.

Mining has continued.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby did not explicitly name climate change as a factor in her decision. She referred more broadly to air quality and reclamation concerns and said the government had not taken given them enough consideration.

The 2,042-acre expansion would allow Spring Creek to operate through at least 2022, according to court documents. Mining already has begun, and it would take up to two years to move the operation onto alternative state or private leases, Cloud Peak said.

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