The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) on June 2 issued an environmental assessment (EA) and a companion Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI) on the environmental effects of a mining plan modification for a Lease-By-Application (LBA) at Cloud Peak Energy‘s Spring Creek coal mine in Montana.
OSMRE is responsible for reviewing plans to conduct coal mining and reclamation operations on lands containing leased federal coal. OSMRE must prepare and submit to the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management (ASLM) a decision document recommending approval, conditional approval or disapproval of the proposed mining plan modification. ASLM approval of the mining plan modification would authorize mining activities on 1,111.7 acres of federal coal lease MTM94378 within the existing, state-approved mine permit boundary.
OSMRE is inviting the public to comment on the EA until July 5 and has also made the unsigned FONSI available for public review.
A 2012 federal mining plan modification approval was challenged by two sets of plaintiffs in two separate legal actions and those two challenges were consolidated into a single case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana. On Jan. 21, 2016, the court issued a decision that OSMRE had failed to fulfill certain of its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved the 2012 federal mining plan modification.
According to the court’s order, OSMRE had failed to notify the public after it had issued its FONSI for the federal mining plan modification and OSMRE had failed to adequately explain in its FONSI that OSMRE had taken a “hard look” at the environmental effects of approving the 2012 federal mining plan modification. Because of these procedural deficiencies in OSMRE’s NEPA compliance, the court ordered OSMRE to prepare an updated EA within 240 days to analyze the environmental effects of the mining plan amendment for lease MTM 94378.
The District Court did not vacate the 2012 federal mining plan modification, but instead deferred vacatur for 240 days (to Sept. 17, 2016) to provide OSMRE time to prepare the updated EA. The deferral of the vacatur for 240 days would allow OSMRE the opportunity to correct the NEPA violations without having detrimental consequences for Spring Creek Coal and its employees.
The Spring Creek Mine is located in Big Horn County, Montana, approximately 32 miles north of Sheridan, Wyoming. Coal has been mined on a commercial scale since 1979. Coal is mined using conventional surface-mining methods and shipped from an onsite railroad loading facility to electric utilities and industrial customers in the northwest, midwest, northeast, and southwest United States, various Canadian provinces, and exported to Asian utility customers via the Westshore Terminal in British Columbia, Canada.
In 2014, approximately 73% of coal from this Powder River Basin mine was shipped to U.S. markets, approximately 24% went to Asian markets, and around 3% went to Canadian markets. As approved in the 2012 federal mining plan modification, Spring Creek Coal could continue mining operations (mining, processing, and shipping coal) through approximately 2025.