Climate + Energy

WildEarth Guardians Confronts Trump Administration for Turning Back on Lethal Coal Mine Pollution


Sign warning of toxic “orange cloud” in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

WildEarth Guardians today delivered a message to Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining: Take action to limit toxic air pollution at coal mines or face a lawsuit in federal court.

At issue is the creation of poisonous orange clouds when coal companies use explosives at massive strip mines, mainly in the Powder River Basin of northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana.

It’s no secret that these orange clouds, which consist of lethal levels of nitrogen dioxide gas, are dangerous. Signs throughout the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana warn of blasting emissions and even go so far as to direct the public to “Avoid Contact” with the orange cloud.

The clouds are unmistakable when witnessed and have threatened homes, towns, businesses, even kids getting off school buses. In the Powder River Basin, orange clouds frequently pass over the Thunder Basin National Grassland, a popular recreation area.

See the video below and see for yourself how these orange clouds form during blasting at Powder River Basin coal mines.

Back in 2014, WildEarth Guardians called on the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to prohibit orange clouds at coal mines in the United States. In a detailed petition, Guardians highlighted how orange clouds reflect inherently unsafe blasting practices, which are prohibited under the U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

In digging into the issue, we found that orange clouds are completely preventable. They’re the result of incomplete combustion, which is usually caused by moisture and other factors. Smaller blasts, better timing, better design, and more attention to quality and detail would actually eliminate orange clouds.

Other countries, like Australia, expressly forbid orange clouds and have imposed incredibly rigorous oversight of blasting emissions in order to prevent orange clouds and manage them if, by chance, they do occur.

In the Powder River Basin, which is home to the world’s largest open pit coal mines, limiting blasting is almost anathema to companies like Peabody, Arch, and Cloud Peak. Because blasting enables these companies to move huge amounts of overburden in a very short amount of time and with little expense, the industry has turned a blind eye to orange clouds.

Instead, they’ve been content to just post warning signs throughout the region. Of course, warning signs do nothing to protect the public.


In 2015, the Office of Surface Mining granted WildEarth Guardians petition and agreed to update its rules. It was a welcome acknowledgment of the dangers of using explosives at coal mines and the need to crackdown on unsafe and unacceptable blasting practices.

Under federal law, if a petition for new rules is granted, the Office of Surface Mining is required to “promptly” adopt the new rules. Unfortunately, while the agency signaled its intend to adopt new rules, it never followed through.

Making matters worse, when the Trump Administration took over, the Office of Surface Mining actually “withdrew” its plan to update its rules.

The result is that coal companies are free to create as many toxic orange clouds as they want whenever they want. In the Powder River Basin, it’s led to orange clouds become the norm, rather than the exception.

See for yourself. The video below shows the formation of an orange cloud at a recent blast at a Powder River Basin coal mine. 

With today’s notice, we’re pushing back against the Trump Administration’s rollbacks of health and environmental safeguards for coal mines. The evidence is clear that orange clouds are not only toxic, but preventable and unacceptable. By law, they simply shouldn’t be allowed.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act says that we have to wait at least 60 days before filing suit in federal court. That means that Zinke and the Office of Surface Mining have 60 days to get their act together or get sued.

With the evidence undeniable that orange clouds are dangerous, are a problem, and should be regulated, we’re not going to back from enforcing accountability.

Right now, coal companies are putting the costs and risks of orange clouds on the American public. It’s high time they dealt with the risk and paid the cost of controlling this lethal air pollution.