The Bull Mountains, just north of Billings, are home to Montana’s only underground coal mine, owned by Signal Peak Energy. I’ve ranched in these hills all my life, as have my parents before me. We have operated ranches alongside coal production for generations. This has always been a challenge because coal mining inherently causes damage to the land and water we depend on for our livestock and livelihoods. But we always found a way to make it work.
We try to be honest and direct. We strive to maintain respectful relationships with the workers who support their families. When dealing with business leaders, we stand up for our rights, uphold our values, and do our best to protect our community without harming the livelihoods of others. Managing these relationships takes work and patience. This requires courtesy and understanding of others’ points of view. Fourteen years ago, Signal Peak moved into our community. Soon after, civility and respect were pushed aside, and it has only gotten worse since.
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The headlines about Signal Peak’s repeated criminal convictions, investigations, and wild details involved are plentiful. They sound sensational and would be hard to believe without the facts detailed in criminal proceedings and law enforcement reports. In one case, a workplace injury resulted in a finger being amputated and the worker’s superiors bribed him with an envelope full of cash to refrain from reporting it.
In another case, former mine manager Larry Price, Jr. staged his own kidnapping while trying to outrun business investors he had defrauded $20 million from. He was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud and lying to the FBI about the fake kidnapping.
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 of the offenses involved pumping toxic waste sludge into the ground, threatening the safety of our community’s water sources.
A Department of Justice statement about the investigation reads: “…mine managers lied about the mine’s expenses, its safety record and other matters, which…resulted in individual criminal convictions and charges against nine people, including former vice presidents of the mine and their associates, on crimes ranging from embezzlement, tax evasion and bank fraud to money laundering , drug and firearm offences.
This toxic culture has extended to the treatment of the landowners who operate the mine. Signal Peak is trying to drive us off our lands by destroying 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 springs of water we have a legal right to use, and forcing us into endless lawsuits, one of which was found to be harassment of landowners in Billings District Court.
Now Signal Peak is canceling the long-term leases we have held for over 65 years, saying they can evict us from our own lands and block access for the next eight years, jeopardizing 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 well-documented criminal accusations, bribery schemes and international bribery. In 2014, the US Treasury discovered that Russian President Vladimir Putin had investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.
Court documents show former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Johnson forwarded an image of himself, Wayne Boich, and the faces of other associates photoshopped on Mount Rushmore with the caption “F*** ANYBODY WHO AIN ‘YOU S”. They bragged about a $60 million corruption scandal and a legislative bailout in Ohio that analysts 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 followed this rule with us and the rest of Montana. These are not the kind of people we want to do business with in our state. The Department of Environmental Quality has an obligation to protect our communities from repeat 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 the Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family farming group founded in 1972 by Bull Mountain ranching families and others.