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Ranchers bring fight against Signal Peak coal mine to Montana DEQ

Bull Mountain ranchers
Posted at 3:22 PM, Aug 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-25 17:22:26-04

ROUNDUP — For decades in the Bull Mountains, cows and coal have lived together. It was a relationship that was in balance when Kit Nilson and Steve Charter's parents started a cattle operation in the rolling sagebrush hills of the Bulls in 1955.

"For 67 years, the Bulls have been our home and our livelihood," Nilson said. "How could you look at the sprawling landscape and not feel at peace?"

Nilson and Charter ranch side-by-side cattle operations, an extension of their family legacy on the land.

"My first memories are of the Bull Mountains," Steve Charter said. "I've been in love with it ever since."

It's the allure of the Bulls that brought Pat Thiele to buy land of his own.

"The best thing about it is, there's not a lot of people here," Thiele said.

While these ranchers have a love of the land in common, they also have a common fight.

"The way I look at it is, if this was a science fiction movie and there was an alien monster that was destroying the land and exhaling poison, some hero would get up and figure out how to kill it. But what we do is give it a 50% property tax break," Thiele said.

The issue at hand, ranchers say, is a nearby coal mine operated by Signal Peak Energy that they say is using bad practices by damaging land, contaminating groundwater, and canceling long-held leases - all tactics to kick ranchers out of the area so the mine can expand.

"Don't get us wrong, our family has nothing against mining. It creates a lot of great local jobs, but it's the way they're behaving right now that we have a problem with," Nilson said. "It's not Montanan."

For Nilson and Charter, the mine is canceling their 75-year lease eight years early. Thiele owns his land outright, but coal runs right under his property and the mine can extract it as they please, whether Thiele likes it or not.

Thiele is afraid the coal mining would destroy his wells and the subsidence cracks would destroy his home.

Walking through Steve Charter's property, subsidence cracks spread like spiderwebs across the landscape, and Thiele's yardstick barely spans them.

Subsidence cracks occur after mining extracts material and the land compresses on itself.

"We're on top of this mountain," Charter says gesturing to the Bulls, "and if the coal is 800 feet below, when they remove that coal layer that land compresses and we'll ultimately be 10 feet lower."

Charter explains that the cracks pose a hazard to cattle, horses, and humans, as well as exposing and threatening underground aquifers.

The cracks can be fixed with remediation, but whether the mine will bother with that on land they own, Charter finds unlikely.

Local beef with Signal Peak is not new.

The mine has been entangled in a series of legal issues and court cases related to health and safety issues.

In January 2022, a federal judge ordered the mine pay $1 million in fines and sentenced them to three years probation, pointing to the illegal dumping of mine waste in abandoned mine shafts and covering up miners' workplace injuries.

Signal Peak accepted the ruling and said it was ready to turn over a new leaf by overhauling a lot of top-level management and bringing in a new CEO.

Surveying the land below him from the top of the Bulls, Charter says he hasn't seen a change in behavior.

"A lot of these environmental things where they where dumping toxic waste basically into the aquifers, that hasn't been rectified," Charter said.

Charter, Thiele and Nilson are all members of the Bull Mountain Alliance and are working with the Northern Plains Resource Council to take bigger action against the mine.

This week, the Northern Plains Resource Council filed a petition with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to revoke the operating permit for Signal Peak.

The DEQ says they are reviewing the complaint.

Mike Dawson, a spokesperson for Signal Peak, says they have no comment and if they do, it will be in court filings down the road.

As the battle in the Bull Mountains continues, Charter and Nilson prepare for a cattle shipment that marks the end of an era.

"None of this stuff is going to save us," Charter said. "They pretty well got us over a barrel."

"But whether we're here or not, we want to make sure that this land isn't destroyed."