Arch Coal: Incompetent or Arrogant?

That is the question that some of us are asking after Arch Coal submitted an obviously incomplete permit application for the proposed Otter Creek coal mine to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at the end of last year.

Following Montana’s administrative laws and regulations, department staff did their job and rejected Arch Coal’s application in early April of this year, sending a 41-page deficiency notice to the company.

Mike Rowland, Arch Coal's Montana Director
Mike Rowland, Arch Coal’s Montana Director speaking in Lame Deer, MT at a public hearing on the proposed Otter Creek coal mine.
Environmental Quality staff compared Montana’s environmental and mining regulations with the entire permit application and listed every instance where Arch Coal was not in compliance or omitted necessary data. The Department also found Arch Coal outright didn’t include entire sections, which the company said were “to be provided later.” Sections like a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Plan, a Reclamation Plan, a Cultural Resources Mitigation Plan, proof of liability insurance. You know, little things like that.

Words and phrases used over and over again in the deficiency notice include: must be submitted, inadequate, misleading, mis-represented, contradictory, not acceptable, unacceptable, inconsistencies, missing CAD data, correct this information, incorrect, discrepancy, unclear, correct this statement, confusion, does not adequately address, resubmit, inappropriate, insufficient, error, improper, missing, DEQ does not agree and cannot be verified. I’m not taking these words out of context. Read it for yourself. These phrases and words were used consistently in the document referring to Arch Coal’s data or analysis of the data.

Arch Coal will argue that it is common for mining permit applications to be returned to the company for more details or for minor reworking of the document. This is true.

What isn’t common, in Montana at least, is for a mining company to change the language of the laws and administrative rules in their permit application to “lessen their commitment.”

Yeah, they did that.

Rewriting Montana laws

Now, either Arch Coal has people working for them that are not qualified to produce a permit application or they intentionally changed the language of the regulations to see if they could slip one by the state of Montana and lessen their responsibilities to the land, water, air and citizens. Arch is used to working in Wyoming so my hunch is it’s the latter of the two.

On page 24 of the deficiency notice, Department staff write,

It appears that in some instances, OCC (Otter Creek Coal Co.) recites the applicable rule verbatim, and in other instances, modifies or omits rule language.

Then again on page 24, DEQ states,

OCC has again added the qualifier, “where feasible” to the permit language in the following paragraph (17.24.631(3)(b). OCC’s version of ARM 17.24.631 is not acceptable and must be modified: there is no ‘where feasible’ provision in the rule.

And on the final page there is one last sentence from Environmental Quality staff,

DEQ has noted that OCC has changed the language of the rules throughout the application to lessen the commitment required by the rules. As a reminder, OCC will be held to the standards set forth in the ARM l7.24.XXXX first and foremost, before the commitments in the permit application.

Where Feasible?

I think it is important to take a moment and think about what they did. It is something that takes a level of arrogance that is almost unimaginable to the average person. But then again, when you are acting on behalf of a large corporation like Arch Coal — with its numerous subsidiary companies — and no individual has to actually take responsibility for the actions of said corporation, I guess any discomfort at breaking rules gets dispersed among enough people that it is no big deal.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just follow laws “where feasible.” Oh, I’m sorry officer, I was speeding through a school zone because slowing down just didn’t seem feasible.

What else is mind-boggling is that the small article in the Montana newspapers about the deficiency notice stated that Montana regulators were just asking for more information about the mine. The article completely ignored that Arch Coal didn’t submit entire required sections of the permit and rewrote Montana’s administrative rules.

It is understandable that Arch Coal is in a hurry. Port proposals to export coal to Asia on the west coast are dropping like flies and they don’t have a domestic market for their coal. They are in a race against time, history and the citizens of southeastern Montana, and Arch Coal is losing.

Thank the Montana Department of Environmental Quality staff

If you have a moment go ahead and send a thank you to the staff at the DEQ who did such a great job reviewing Arch Coal’s permit application.