Criminal activity in the Bull Mountains must be stopped
Steve Charter looking at the subsidence in the Bull Mountains in central Montana (Photo by Steve Charter).
The Bull Mountains just north of Billings are home to Montana’s only underground coal mine, owned by Signal Peak Energy.
I have ranched in these hills my entire life, just like my parents before me. We have ranched alongside coal production for generations. It’s always been a challenge because coal mining inherently causes damage to the land and water we depend on for our cattle and livelihood. But we’ve always found a way to make it work.
We try to be honest and forthright. We work to maintain respectful relationships with the workers earning a living for their families. When dealing with corporate executives, we stand up for our rights, uphold our values, and do our best to protect our community without undercutting the livelihoods of others. Managing these relationships takes work and patience. It requires civility and understanding others’ perspectives. Fourteen years ago, Signal Peak moved into our community. Soon after that, civility and respect were shoved aside, and it’s only gotten worse since.
Headlines about Signal Peak’s repeated criminal convictions, investigations, and the wild details involved are plentiful. They sound sensational and would be hard to believe if not for the facts detailed in criminal court proceedings and law enforcement reports. In one case, a workplace injury led to a finger amputation, and the worker’s superiors bribed him with a cash-filled envelope to refrain from reporting it.
In another case, former mine executive Larry Price, Jr., staged his own kidnapping while trying to outrun business investors he had swindled $20 million from. He was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud and lying to the FBI about the false abduction.
In January, Signal Peak was sentenced in federal criminal court to a $1 million fine and three years’ probation after pleading guilty to multiple counts of health and safety violations. One violation involved pumping toxic waste slurry into the ground, threatening the safety of our community’s water sources.
A Department of Justice statement about the investigation says, “….mine managers lied about the mine’s expenses, its safety record, and other matters, which… resulted in individual criminal convictions and charges for nine persons, including former mine vice presidents and their associates, on crimes ranging from embezzlement, tax evasion and bank fraud to money laundering, drugs and firearms violations.”
This toxic culture has extended to the treatment of landowners who ranch over the mine. Signal Peak is trying to drive us off our land by tearing out spring developments and water storage facilities (as documented in a DEQ complaint and order for Signal Peak to provide replacement water), cutting us off from water sources we have the legal right to use, and by forcing us into endless legal cases, one of which was ruled harassment to landowners by the District Court in Billings.
Now Signal Peak is canceling long-term leases we’ve held for over 65 years, claiming they can kick us off our own deeded land and block access for the next eight years, imperiling our ranching operations and our livelihoods.
The toxic culture and criminal behavior of Signal Peak is not surprising given the history of the parent companies that created it. Wayne Boich, Jr., FirstEnergy Corporation, and Gunvor Group jointly own Signal Peak. These entities have a disturbing history of criminal charges, bribery schemes, and well-documented international corruption. In 2014, the U.S. Treasury found that Russian President Vladimir Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.
Court documents show that former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Johnson passed along an image of himself, Wayne Boich, and other associates’ faces Photoshopped onto Mount Rushmore with the caption “F*** ANYBODY WHO AIN’T US.” They were bragging about a $60 million bribery scandal and legislative bailout scheme in Ohio that analysts have called “the worst energy policy in the country.”
Apparently, “F*** ANYBODY WHO AIN’T US” is their version of the golden rule. Signal Peak and its owners have held to this rule with us and the rest of Montana. These are not the type of people we want doing business in our state. The Department of Environmental Quality has an obligation to protect our communities from habitual criminal offenders who have no morals and no respect for ranchers, local residents, or even their own employees.
Steve Charter is a Bull Mountain rancher and member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture group founded in 1972 by Bull Mountain ranch families and others.
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