Arch Coal’s Otter Creek Mine Permit Application called “Deficient”

Otter Creek Valley photo
Otter Creek Valley region – Photo taken by Ecoflight.
In what could be the largest understatement of the year coming from a Montana state agency, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) declared Arch Coal’s permit application to mine in the Otter Creek valley “deficient.”

Quick background

On March 8, 2010, Otter Creek Coal, LLC, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, the second largest U.S. coal producer, leased 572 million tons of coal from the State of Montana. On October 23, 2012, the Montana Supreme Court confirmed that the leasing of this coal does not authorize or permit any mining activity and does not authorize or permit any degradation of land or water.

In addition, the leases do not allow any significant surface disturbance prior to acquisition of all required permits from the State of Montana (Montana Supreme Court Decision, DA 12-0184 and DA 12-0185, 10/23/2012). And, according to both the District Court and Montana Supreme Court, Arch Coal, by leasing the Otter Creek tracts from the State, acquired “nothing more than the exclusive right to apply for permits from the State.” Under Montana law—section 82-4-221 of the Montana Code—Arch Coal must obtain an operating permit from the state before it can commence mining.

This permit must include detailed plans for mining, reclamation, revegetation and rehabilitation of the disturbed land. Furthermore, the mine operation and reclamation plan must be reviewed and approved by the State Land Board. On July 25, 2012, Otter Creek Coal, LLC submitted an application for a Strip Mining Permit to the Montana DEQ.

Map of southeastern Montana and Otter Creek Region
Location of Otter Creek Coal tracts and proposed Otter Creek Mine. Map by NWF.

Incomplete permit application

In the cover letter submitted with the permit application package, Arch itself admits that its permit application is incomplete, stating that over 10 required sections are not included “for various reasons” and will be supplied at a later date, including a certificate of insurance, cultural site testing, wildlife data, agricultural production, cultural sites, revegetation map, post-mining drainage plan, bond calculation, cultural resources mitigation and reclamation plans for Prime Farmlands.

Sufficient Information?

And yet, even though Arch Coal has left out critical environmental, agriculture, and wildlife data, they state that the Permit Application Package contains “sufficient information” to initiate the environmental review process. How can the State of Montana start an environmental review process for a region best known for its wildlife, agricultural values, and cultural sites if it doesn’t have any wildlife, agriculture and cultural site data?

Notice of deficiency

On October 25, the Montana DEQ stated the obvious and sent a Notice of Deficiency to Arch Coal because, well, its application was incomplete. As of today, we are still waiting on crucial information from Arch Coal, information that is necessary in order to begin an environmental review process.

In their initial application they stated they would submit the wildlife information by August. I called the DEQ yesterday to ask if they had submitted any additional information and the answer, unsurprisingly, was no. Arch Coal believes that they can submit a shoddy permit application and still proceed with their mine plans, and they would be right because the state of Montana is going along with them, no questions asked.

So, even though the company has not submitted the necessary data, it is moving forward with hiring a contractor to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. To paraphrase Walter in the film The Big Lebowski, “doesn’t anyone give a damn about the rules?” I think we all know the answer to that.