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Musselshell County land owners comment on proposed changes to mining regulations

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Posted at 12:08 AM, Nov 02, 2023

Mining regulations in Montana could change.

The Montana Legislature approved two new laws this past session.

One centers around water-quality reclamation.

The other, environmentalists argue, could financially burden groups from suing mining companies during the permitting process, unless they can pay to lose.

But all this would still need approval by the Department of the Interior.

Ranchers and environmentalists offered their comments at the hearing, held at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel Billings on Wednesday.

One of the bill's sponsors spoke in favor of the proposed changes.

The new laws have some concerned in Musselshell County.

Landowners near the Bull Mountain Mine near Roundup say coal mining reclamation has not been completed.

"My brother Steve has had the most damage," said Kit Charter Nilson. "He's got subsidence cracks all over his place."

Nilson's brother, Steve Charter, has been challenged with injuries to his cattle.

Earth Justice and The Western Environmental Law Center sent a letter with legal analysis to the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), complaining about the cracks and asking to have officials follow the law.

Q2 has not yet heard back from Signal Peak Energy about the remediation or the proposed laws.

"I truly believe mining and agriculture can co-exist, but it has to be done right," one woman said at the hearing.

More than 20 commented.

House Bill 576 had defined material damage to the hydraulic balance as significant long-term or permanent adverse change.

"As long as it is similar to the water quality around it or to the pre-existing conditions around it, that is not adversely damaged water," said Speaker Pro Tempore Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson.

Culbertson, who served on the House Natural Resources Committee, says material damage was previously not clearly defined.

"It makes it almost impossible for a landowner to be sure that their water will maintain its current quality."

Senate Bill 392 authorizes a court or agency to award reasonable attorney costs to the party that wins the case.

"The prospect of having to pay their bill if you don't prevail, it would obviously have a pretty strong chilling effect," said Ressa Charter, Steve's son.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is a sponsor of SB 392.

"The concern is that you get these long litigation processes and that even if you eventually do prevail, after many years, you may not you may not even be able to do it," Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick says the law is not meant to stop lawsuits.

"It's intended to make sure what you're filing is a legitimate lawsuit," Fitzpatrick said. "It's just intended to even the playing field and make sure we're not subjecting people to frivolous lawsuits."

Public comment ends on Nov. 6.

The OSMRE expects the decision to take two to three months.