The Northern Cheyenne Nation has duked it out with coal now and again over the past 40 years to protect their pristine water quality, and air so clean it is designated as a Class 1 Airshed, a federal benchmark that sets protections to maintain status of air quality.
The tribe’s latest salvo is a lawsuit filed in federal district court challenging a decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to lift a moratorium on coal leases on public land that could disproportionately affect their Montana reservation, yet omitted the Tribe from any notice or consultation.
The Northern Cheyenne reservation sits in the midst of approximately 426 million tons of coal, and pending coal leases that can now move forward. The tribe’s March 30 lawsuit said coal mining near the reservation would cause “significant environmental and socioeconomic harms to the Tribe.” Such mining would ultimately destroy the traditional way of life they have fought to preserve for centuries, Tribal Council Chair and President Jace Killsback said.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed the order on March 29, never acknowledging the Northern Cheyenne’s letter to the Interior Department earlier in the month that requested government-to-government consultation before the agency made any decision to lift or modify the moratorium.
"It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne's trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation," Killsback said in a news release.
Interior Department policy, as with all federal agencies considering departmental action with implications for a Tribe(s), “must notify the appropriate Tribe(s) of their opportunity to consult with the agency” 30 days in advance, although it’s permissible to adjust that timeline under some circumstances.
The decision to resume federal coal leases was made without conducting a full environmental review, which Killsback said is "critical to understanding the full economic, environmental and health impacts of the program.”
The Crow Tribe adjacent to the Northern Cheyenne reservation has long relied on coal, nine billion tons of the stuff, to support their languishing economy.
“A war on coal is a war on the Crow people,” Zinke said in a press call the day of the decision. He declined to answer a reporter’s question about the Northern Cheyenne lawsuit.
A coalition of conservation organizations and citizen groups filed a lawsuit challenging the same decision on the same date.