Kaya Juda-Nelson: A land of contrasts and commonalities

We had just left the beautiful ranch where Steve Charter, chair of the Northern Plains Resource Counci, lives and practices intensive, rotational grazing and continues his decades-long fight against the mining of coal from beneath his land. Steve’s father, Boyd, began ranching there decades ago, and refused to sell the property when coal companies came knocking. And now Steve’s children work to sustain and steward the land and fend off more coal development. We sit in the living room of Steve’s ultra-efficient home as he conveys his experience battling mining companies and the BLM as they have pushed for more extraction. His tan, leathery hands reveal a lifetime of days spent in the windy grasslands, and his voice is thick and shaky with emotion as he tell us that the land he loves, where he grazes his cattle in the winter, is no longer silent, drowned out by the relentless whine of a coal shaft fan.

Steve Charter is kind and dedicated. He takes time to walk us through his grazing methods and always makes sure we’re well-fed. I feel at home on this expanse of land, characterized by the stark beauty of eastern Montana that is often underappreciated. It’s comforting to be surrounded by warm people whose values and passions align with my own. And so it’s jarring to leave the ranch and pedal to the Signal Peak mine that the Charters have long been fighting.

In studying environmental issues and climate change, many of us are quick to villainize the coal industry. Coal-fired power plants are some of the main contributors to the spike in atmospheric CO2 and other pervasive pollutants such as mercury, and coal’s extraction brings plenty of environmentally degrading side effects, from destruction of land and wildlife habitat, to toxic, leaking settling ponds. I can’t argue that coal isn’t dirty, destructive and increasingly expensive. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that several rural communities like Roundup are intimately tied into the coal industry, and anti-coal activism becomes more complicated, more human, when you meet families inextricably tied into this economy.

Byron Kinn is the surface superintendent at Signal Peak and proudly leads us through the facilities. I came here wanting to ask prying and controversial questions about the environmental and human health implications of this dirty industry, but I find myself holding back. The more Byron tells us about his experience as an employee here, and the level to which coal mining is deeply engrained in his and his coworkers’ lives, the harder it is to direct my outrage at the individuals who work every day to produce this fossil fuel.

Byron tells us that he grew up in Colstrip, a company town built around a massive coal mine and power plant. His dad worked in the mine and he remembers that as a young boy, he and his friends would swim in abandoned mining pits filled with water. We drive around Signal Peak. Coal is pulled from the earth on conveyer belts and plowed into mountains; trains can’t haul it away fast enough. About 80 percent is exported to Asia. I ask Byron if he would hypothetically work for a wind or solar company. Without hesitation, he says he would, and that he sees the value and importance of clean energy, but the reality is that right now, that isn’t presented to him as an option. And here it is: a lack of an alternative solution. We can rally and protest and draft legislation against coal, but until there are more clean energy industries to transition into, both in terms of jobs as well as our global energy needs, alternative energy can’t be a viable social or economic alternative.

With each new glimpse into the many aspects of this tangled and ever-complex issue of energy and climate change, you get a flicker of clarity, with the realization that the problem our generation is charged with solving is more complicated and overwhelming than we could possibly understand. Yet, often these massive problems can be boiled down into the simple and universal values of work and community and family ties. I leave Signal Peak sobered by the degrading realities of coal mining, but somehow at ease knowing that we share more common ground than our polarized political system suggests, and solutions will be found there.

– Kaya Juda-Nelson

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