BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The owners of one of the largest underground coal mines in the United States said Friday that "the clock is running" on potential layoffs and asked an appellate court to intervene after a judge halted a planned expansion of the Montana mine.
Signal Peak Energy has said up to 30 workers from the Bull Mountain Mine could run out of work by the end of October and be laid off under an August ruling from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy.
Molloy sided with environmentalists who said that in approving the expansion, the Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining had failed to fully consider the greenhouse gas impacts of burning coal.
With backing from the Trump administration, Signal Peak last month filed an emergency motion for Molloy to reconsider and allow limited work to continue. But the judge denied the request this week and scheduled an Oct. 31 hearing date to address the company's arguments for why work should continue.
Signal Peak spokesman Mike Dawson declined to say if the hearing would be too late for workers whose jobs are said to be in peril. The company's appeal is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
"We want to avoid any layoffs," Dawson said. "The clock is running."
Another 50 workers could run out of work by next March and 80 more by 2019, the company has said. The Montana Environmental Information Center, which sued to stop the expansion, opposes any changes to Molloy's original order.
The mine north of Billings employs about 250 workers and ships 95 percent of its fuel to customers in Asia, according to court filings. It's seeking to expand onto a 176-million ton coal reserve beneath land adjacent to the mine.
In approving the expansion, federal mining officials had claimed there would be no additional environmental impacts from burning more coal from Bull Mountain because its customers would simply go somewhere else if the expansion were not approved.
Molloy rejected that argument and also said officials had inflated the mine's economic benefits in order to justify the expansion approval.