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Rosebud Mine

A worker at the Rosebud Mine in Colstrip is dwarfed by the 60-cubic-yard bucket on one of the three drag lines that operate constantly at the mine in this 2014 file photo.

Colstrip had been grappling with an uncertain future with the scheduled shutdown of part of the power plant that employs about 320 people and indirectly provides employment for most of the rest of the community’s workers. Recent lawsuits have added to the community’s worries.

The Rosebud Mine, which provides coal to power the Colstrip plant, is to be sold at auction on Jan. 22, as reported last weekend in The Billings Gazette by Tom Lutey. The sale was approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Court to help pay debts of the mine’s owner, Westmoreland Coal, which filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 8.

Meanwhile, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing Westmoreland’s application to greatly expand the Rosebud Mine, which it apparently will not own three months from now.

Also in October, Talen Montana, the operator and part owner of the Colstrip power plant, sued its predecessor, PPL Corp., claiming that the Pennsylvania-based company wrongfully took $773 million as profit when that money should have stayed with the power plant to cover worker and retiree benefits and environmental cleanup costs. Talen acquired 50 percent interest in Units 1 and 2 and 15 percent of Units 3 and 4 in 2015. At that time, PPL was a part owner of Talen. A year later, PPL sold its interest in Talen to Riverstone Holdings.

After filing the lawsuits, Talen said it would cover its obligations to workers and cleanup regardless of the outcome of the litigation. But concerned citizens surely wonder where Talen will get the many millions of dollars needed.

The plant needs sufficient coal supply to continue operating Units 1 and 2 till they must shut sometime before 2022. The plant needs coal to keep running the newer, larger Units 3 and 4.

It isn’t clear whether the city, county or state can intervene in the Westmoreland’s Texas bankruptcy filing or in Talen’s two lawsuits filed in Montana. However, the DEQ permitting process definitely is within the state’s control. The mine permit decision must be consistent with the public interest in protecting clean water and the region’s economy.

Concern about future coal supply already prompted four Washington and Oregon utilities that co-own the power plant to jointly file with the Texas U.S. bankruptcy court an objection to the mine’s sale.

Suppose DEQ expedites the permit, not knowing who will own the Rosebud mine — and the right to mine another 10 square miles. Would such hurried action on the part of DEQ assure Montana miners that they will keep their jobs? Would it assure that the mine will continue to produce and sell enough coal to the Colstrip plant? Would it assure that the new owner has a good track record and the ability to fulfill obligations to workers and environmental protection? Or would a newly minted expansion permit simply boost the price on the auction block, profiting Westmoreland as it quits Colstrip?

DEQ gave preliminary approval to expansion of the Rosebud Mine three days before Westmoreland filed for bankruptcy. Ten days later, Westmoreland put the mine up for sale.

More than 50 springs would be destroyed by the mine expansion, Northern Plains Resource Council said last week. The Billings-based group asked DEQ to stop the permitting process — at least till the mine developer is identified.

DEQ should listen. Common sense dictates that state regulators should know who they are dealing with before they proceed further. Westmoreland and any new owner must demonstrate that they are able and willing to comply with Montana law.

It’s time to slow down, DEQ. Hold onto that leverage. Give Westmoreland and any new Rosebud Mine owner more reason to be responsive and responsible to concerns of their employees and neighbors.

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