By Matthew Brown
October 6, 2017 - The "clock is running" on layoffs at one of the largest underground coal mines in the United States, its owners said Friday, as they asked a federal appeals court to reverse a judge's order that could bring some work at the mine to a halt later this month.
Signal Peak Energy says as many as 30 workers from the Bull Mountain Mine could run out of work by the end of October and 50 more workers by March under an August ruling from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy.
Molloy sided with environmentalists who said that in approving the expansion, the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining had not adequately considered how burning the mine's coal would contribute to climate change.
With backing from Trump administration lawyers, Signal Peak last month filed an emergency motion for Molloy to reconsider and allow limited work to continue.
The judge denied the request this week and scheduled an Oct. 31 hearing to address the company's arguments for why work should continue.
Signal Peak spokesman Mike Dawson declined to say if such hearing would be too late for workers whose jobs are said to be in peril. The company's appeal is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
"The clock is running, and we're getting closer to being forced to lay some people off. We do not want to," Dawson said.
Another 80 workers could run out of work by 2019, the company has said.
In its appeal to the 9th Circuit, attorneys for the company said Molloy should have considered the effect on the mine before issuing his injunction. They said its workers could stay on if Signal Peak can conduct preparatory work on the expansion while the government goes back and addresses the problems found in its approval.
"On balance, the devastating and immediate threats to real people's livelihoods and to the mine far outweigh any harms" from allowing that preliminary work to continue, Signal Peak attorney John Martin wrote.
The Montana Environmental Information Center, which sued to stop the expansion, opposes any changes to Molloy's original order. Members of the group contend that regardless of their lawsuit, Bull Mountain's long-term prospects are dim and communities that rely on it should start planning for when it's gone.
The mine north of Billings employs about 250 workers and ships 95 percent of its fuel to customers in Asia, according to court filings. It's seeking to expand onto a 176-million ton coal reserve beneath land adjacent to the mine.
The mine's production volume has fallen 35 percent since peaking in 2013. The decline came as utilities across the U.S. and in other countries shut down coal-burning power plants in favor of electricity from natural gas, wind turbines and solar farms
In approving the expansion, federal mining officials had claimed there would be no additional environmental effects from burning more coal from Bull Mountain because its customers would simply go somewhere else if the expansion were not approved.
Molloy rejected that argument and said officials had inflated the mine's economic benefits in order to justify the expansion's approval.