Issue Update: Montanans Testify about Coal Train Impacts

Students from Cycle the Rockies will remember Ressa Charter, the latest of the great conservation activists from the Charter family, who host us on their ranch north of Billings. Ressa traveled to Spokane to testify about proposals for greatly increased coal mining and shipping mean to the real people and real landscapes in Montana. The public comment sessions did not include Montana, so Ressa and many others went to Spokane to speak up.

From the Missoula Independent:

Montanans bus 1,000 miles for voice in coal-export debate

POSTED BY  ON TUE, DEC 11, 2012 AT 11:48 AM

By early afternoon on Dec. 4, the bus that left Billings at 4 a.m. had reached Idaho. The 60 people on board, some of whom climbed aboard in Billings, others in Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, are all eager to arrive in Spokane, Wash., where federal and state agencies are holding a hearing on a proposed coal-export terminal on Washington’s coast, near Bellingham.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers apparently figured the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would be of little significance to Montana, so it didn’t schedule an Environmental Impact Statement scoping hearing anywhere in the state. But these passengers—Montana ranchers, school teachers, members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and college-aged activists among them, all wearing matching red “Power Past Coal Montana” T-shirts—are traveling as many as 550 miles over eight hours, each way, to tell the agency otherwise. In short, they want the scope of the coal-export terminal study to include impacts back to the mines in Montana and Wyoming that would supply the coal, such as the proposed Otter Creek mine in southeastern Montana.

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With the group still more than an hour from Spokane, Natalie Snyders, a staffer with the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council, the non-profit that chartered the bus, rises to rouse the road-weary passengers. “The coal doesn’t just start at the Idaho border, it doesn’t just appear there,” she says, standing at the front of the bus with a microphone. “It comes from Montana, right? It comes from the Powder River Basin and [the coal trains are] going to come through Montana, and we’re going to be impacted. Billings is going to be impacted just as much as Spokane is.”

One of the passengers is Ressa Charter, a 31-year-old in a cowboy hat whose family ranches in the Bull Mountains, where they’ve fought coal development for decades. “So I’m bred for all of this,” he says. He calls the coal-export proposition “an obvious boondoggle.” But with the backing of some of the world’s largest coal companies and BNSF Railway, and the lure of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to the state, there’s real potential to move huge amounts of Montana coal across the Pacific Ocean; a relatively small amount is already shipped to Asia.

Many of the passengers are concerned about climate change. Burning Otter Creek coal could release billions of tons of carbon emissions. “The climate change argument is the most serious argument,” Charter says. “But the PR alchemy says that’s verboten.” Instead, the more concrete health and safety impacts and infrastructure requirements of those passing coal trains seem more likely to resonate with a federal agency like the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I’m hopeful that this groundswell of resistance will get its own momentum going and be a part of the general anti-extreme extraction, dig-up-the-last-rocks-and-burn-’em mentality,” Charter says.

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