Digging Into a Dirty Coal Deal

A plan to ship low-quality Montana coal to China is putting vast prairie habitat, critical both to wildlife and to Indian cultural traditions, at risk

  • Ken Olsen
  • Conservation
  • Nov 25, 2013
VANESSA BRAIDED HAIR climbs to a knob overlooking the rolling, green prairie of southeastern Montana’s Otter Creek Valley as golden eagles cruise the vast blue skies above and pronghorn browse the lush grass below. Her Northern Cheyenne ancestors took refuge here during the late 1800s after suffering massacres, disease, starvation and forced relocations at the hands of the U.S. government. “This was our oasis,” Braided Hair says of the valley, where Northern Cheyenne still hunt, fish and gather berries and ceremonial plants. She worries that plans to locate a coal mine and associated railroad there “will devastate the Northern Cheyenne way of life.”

The valley is part of the Powder River Basin, a land of pine-topped buttes, sweetgrass valleys and snowmelt streams that encompasses much of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, an area about the size of West Virginia. A wildlife haven, the basin is home to 250 bird species, including bald eagles and 137 different songbirds.

The Montana portion of the basin also sits atop an estimated 119 billion tons of coal, more than any other state and accounting for nearly 25 percent of all U.S. coal reserves. Nevertheless, Montana produces only about 44 million tons of coal yearly—roughly a tenth of Wyoming’s production.

Coal Trains on the Wrong Track

Those figures could change soon. In 2010, Montana’s State Board of Land Commissioners turned over 570 million tons of Otter Creek coal to Arch Coal for $86 million plus future royalties. All told, Arch—second only to Peabody Energy in worldwide coal production—has leased more than 1.2 billion tons of coal on state and private land in the Otter Creek Valley. The company wants to turn this verdant prairie, just east of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, into Montana’s largest open-pit coal mine.

Destined mostly for use in coal-fueled power plants, Otter Creek coal, which is high in sodium, is avoided by some U.S. companies because it fouls power-plant boilers. Arch plans to ship the coal to China. Because there’s no viable way to transport coal out of the valley, Arch and BNSF Railway have proposed building a new rail line, which would require taking 2,700 acres of right-of-way from dozens of landowners along a 42-mile route. Part of the new railroad would follow the Tongue River, which forms the southeastern border of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The sacrifice zone would stretch from new and existing mines in Montana and Wyoming through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and central Washington to proposed export terminals on the coast.

Hundreds of sustainable small business interests are at risk, including ranchers who irrigate hay meadows with water from the Tongue River drainage, into which Otter Creek feeds, and Pacific Northwest fishermen who make their living from salmon and other species sensitive to coal-powered climate change. Pollution from the Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad also threatens the adjacent Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which has some of the highest air- and water-quality standards in the United States. “All of this destruction so the coal industry can make billions of dollars in profits shipping coal overseas,” says Alexis Bonogofsky, NWF tribal lands manager, who joined Braided Hair for a day at Otter Creek.

Consequences of a Dirty Fuel

NWF, other conservation groups and many local residents fear that developing Otter Creek coal will jeopardize surrounding areas and exacerbate climate change Tribal members, ranchers, hunters, anglers, mayors, governors and rank-and-file citizens have raised issues. Mining alters underground aquifers, a vital concern in southeastern Montana, which receives less than 15 inches of rain annually and relies on aquifers for drinking water and irrigation. Each year the nation’s 500 plus coal-fired power plants produce about 130 million tons of coal ash, composed of solid wastes that include mercury, lead and arsenic. Roughly 40 percent is recycled into construction products such as concrete, but something in excess of 70 million tons is dumped into ponds, mine pits, lagoons and other surface facilities.

Conservationists contend that stopping coal exports could benefit the environment by hastening China’s adoption of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. “If China doesn’t get coal so cheaply, it gives them an incentive to develop alternative sources of energy rather than pay more for coal exports from another country,” says Bob Rees, president of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association. Oregon’s $2.5 billion sport-fishing industry is at risk, he says, because ocean acidification caused by coal-fired power plants is wiping out krill and other food sources critical for salmon. “It doesn’t seem like Oregon should have its fingerprint on this natural catastrophe waiting to happen,” Rees says.

Nevertheless, some trade unions and business development groups favor construction of the export terminals, arguing that the terminals would create jobs in the Pacific Northwest while increasing U.S. exports to China. Energy companies also argue that if the United States doesn’t ship coal to Asia, someone else will. However, last July business analysts Goldman Sachs produced a report indicating that the world market for coal is shrinking as China, the globe’s main coal importer, turns to other resources. “The implication for coal-export projects in the Pacific Northwest is clear: They are bum investments,” wrote Grist reporter David Roberts in an article about the Goldman Sachs report.

There are other signs coal is falling out of favor. In August the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, for the first time in Wyoming history, failed to receive a single bid for the rights to mine 148 million tons of coal in the state’s portion of the Powder River Basin.

Coal mining in the basin already has transformed thousands of acres into open-pit mines, including six in Montana alone covering a total of more than 1,000 acres. Wastewater from mines and coal-bed methane wells has made the Tongue River so salty that some irrigators are afraid to use it. “You run the risk of ruining your hayfield,” says Art Hayes, Jr., a fourth-generation rancher and president of the Tongue River Water Users Association.

Native Americans Left Behind

Montanans who have witnessed past energy booms doubt claims that new mines and railroads will provide significant economic benefits. “We already experienced the Colstrip mine and power plant,” says Tom Mexican Cheyenne, who works for the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Health Department. He’s referring to an industrial complex about 20 miles north of the reservation that many southeastern Montanans believe has increased cancer rates among local residents. “Our economic conditions never changed.” Instead, increased activity overwhelmed the tribe’s law enforcement agency and medical center. “No one offered to help our tribe deal with the impacts,” Mexican Cheyenne says. “Mining companies are there to make money from the coal. And when it’s gone, we’re left to clean up the mess.”

While no mining is currently proposed on reservation land, L. Jace Killsback, a Northern Cheyenne tribal councilman, sees the Otter Creek Mine as the next step in a plan to exploit the tribe’s untapped coal reserves, a move he worries other tribal leaders will accept. “Are you ready to see our communities become wastelands?” he asks.

The Oglala Lakota Tribe, which has important cultural links to the Otter Creek Valley, recently passed a resolution opposing the Otter Creek coal mine. The Oglala fear that the mine will damage culturally important historic sites and burial grounds.

Railroad impacts would reverberate all the way to the West Coast. Hundreds of mile-long trains would haul coal weekly to proposed export terminals near Boardman, Oregon, and Longview and Cherry Point, Washington. Coal trains are already a problem. A coalition of conservation groups is suing BNSF Railway for allegedly polluting rivers along the route with coal dust from uncovered rail cars. “The trains are a hazard to our communities, and the proposed coal export terminals are unpopular,” says Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.

Diesel particulate matter from locomotives and ocean-going ships that would call at the terminals is a well-known carcinogen. “It’s a dark, organic soup of chemicals,” says Dan Jaffe, University of Washington professor of environmental chemistry. “We know exposure is a significant factor in the risk for lung cancer.” Moreover, coal-fueled power plants spew mercury and are among the worst climate-change culprits. “If we’re able to cut our coal use domestically but turn around and sell it internationally, we’re not reducing our impact on climate,” says Kassie Rohrbach, manager of NWF’s Coal Exports Campaign.

The export terminals pose other problems. For example, the proposed Cherry Point terminal north of Bellingham, Washington, would be built on a Lummi Indian sacred burial site and a state aquatic reserve. “If they build the port at Cherry Point, we will no longer be able to fish in the area,” says Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council. That loss would deal a significant economic blow to the Lummi, owners of the largest fishing fleet on the West Coast and significant players in the state’s $4.5 billion fishing industry.

Even if the port runs at 99.99 percent perfection, a teaspoon of coal from every ton the port handles will reach the Salish Sea, Julius says, citing a study by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Michael Riordan. As a result, 500 tons of coal would go into the water yearly, an especially dire development because other industrial development has wiped out 90 percent of the area’s herring, and Cherry Point shellfish are too contaminated to eat. “It’s already reached its tipping point with the industry that’s gone in there,” Julius says, referring in part to Cherry Point oil refineries. “If the coal ports go through, we are participating in the destruction of our natural resources—for 25 years of profit.”

The proposed Longview coal terminal would require extensive dredging of critical salmon, steelhead and smelt habitat in the lower Columbia River, VandenHeuvel says. “If we don’t change the way we do business in the world, Pacific wild salmon will be reduced to a remnant population in the next 80 years,” Rees says. Declining salmon runs already jeopardize Puget Sound’s dwindling population of endangered orcas, which depend upon these fish for survival.

“I feel like, as a country and a community, we have a decision to make,” Bonogofsky says as she and Braided Hair pause for a last look at the Otter Creek Valley. “We either move away from coal, or we’re going to contribute to the social and economic destruction of many people and jeopardize wildlife and habitat across a vast sweep of the country.”

NWF in Action: Fighting Reckless Mining Development
NWF, working with local residents in Montana, Washington and Oregon as well as members of the Lummi Nation, has helped stop three of six coastal coal-port terminals proposed by the mining industry for shipping low-grade coal to China. The Lummi may soon be able to quash one of the remaining three proposed terminals because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve the development, recognizes the tribe’s treaty rights to refuse such projects on its land. NWF’s campaign to protect Puget Sound orcas, a dwindling population that could be harmed by construction of coastal coal-port terminals, helped persuade Whatcom County, Washington, officials to require stricter environmental review of the terminals, helping ensure stronger orca protection. “This victory shows what can be accomplished with citizen support of key wildlife campaigns,” says Kassie Rohrbach, manager of NWF’s Coal Exports Campaign. For more information, visit www.nwf.org/coalexports.

Protect Puget Sound orcas from dirty coal >>

Portland, Oregon, writer Ken Olsen grew up in Wyoming about 130 miles from the Powder River Basin.

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NWF at Work: Dirty Fuels 
NWF at Work: Global Warming

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