Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) A bill that would have allowed coal mines to violate water quality standards if excess pollution was only for a limited amount of time won’t become law in Montana, according to plaintiffs who challenged it and another related bill.

House Bill 576, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, would have allowed the Department of Environmental Quality to issue permits without having complete information about how a mine might affect ground or surface water.

It also would have allowed coal mining operations to violate water quality standards if the pollution was not “long term or permanent,” although the terms were not defined.

However, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining rejected the law, the Montana Environmental Information Center said Monday in a news release. The center is one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed in June, along with the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and Citizens for Clean Energy.

The federal agency determined the standards set by the bill would be weaker than minimum federal requirements, the plaintiffs said.

Rep. Knudsen could not be reached for comment Monday by voicemail.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs also sued over Senate Bill 392, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, but the Office of Surface Mining has yet to rule on that bill.

SB 392 would change the law to allow the government or coal mining companies to be awarded attorneys’ fees from citizens or groups that challenge coal mining laws even if those groups bring a good-faith claim that is defeated in court — dubbed a “loser pays” provision by plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs said both laws were designed to diminish the public’s ability to protect water and enforce the Montana Strip and Underground Mine Reclamation Act. Lawmakers, however, had argued the legislation would have sped up permitting and been helpful for coal mines.

Monday, a cattle rancher who said his property is above the state’s only underground coal mine and has already been harmed from impacts to water resources praised the decision on HB 576 from the Office of Surface Mining.

In a statement, Steve Charter of the Northern Plains Resource Council said the decision protects agricultural producers who rely on water resources near coal mines.

“(The bill) would have caused further harm to my ranching operations and serious harm to others who live near or downstream from mines,” said Charter, whose ranch sits above the Signal Peak Mine. “Ranchers from across the state traveled to Helena repeatedly to try to stop these bills from harming our operations.”

Plaintiffs said the law was drafted and pushed through the legislature by coal company lobbyists.

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed both laws, and both were written to take immediate effect, but the plaintiffs said federal agencies needed to first review the bills to ensure they were no less stringent than federal law.

Represented by EarthJustice, the conservation groups said they reached an agreement with the DEQ that the laws would not take effect until the Office of Surface Mining reviewed them for compliance.

Derf Johnson, deputy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said water is Montana’s most critical natural resource, especially in the arid eastern part of the state.

“Thankfully, this law was roundly rejected by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, and Montana’s old law remains in place,” Johnson said in a statement. “What this decision by OSM really means is that coal mining corporations cannot violate water quality standards.”