Background on the Otter Creek Coal Tracts

photo courtesy of the Billings Gazette

The Montana State Land Board, consisting of the five top elected officials in the state and chaired by the Governor, “manages” the use of state-owned land as a source of revenue, most notably to fund schools with.  Any exploitation of public lands bodes well for these politicians, all democrats, because it “benefits the children of Montana”.  The State stands to earn a couple hundred million dollars over the course of several decades by allowing Arch Coal to dig up 1.3 billion tons of coal from under the Otter Creek Valley.

If the 1.3 billion tons of coal are extracted, this will result in 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary climate-change causing greenhouse gas, being emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere either during the mining and transport process or when the coal is burned.  This will effectively double or triple the rate of carbon emissions for the state of Montana over the three decades that Otter Creek coal is expected to last if it is mined.

The coal under Otter Creek is rather high in sodium, as coal-ore goes.  There are currently only a few coal-fired power plants in the United States designed to handle this type of coal, so the market for it will likely not even be in the U.S.  Not a problem for Arch Coal, which has already admitted that it plans to ship the coal overseas if that is what it takes to find buyers.

The plan for transporting the coal to market involves construction of the Tongue River Railroad, which would carry the coal approximately 120 miles north to link into the national rail system.  This rail would potentially destroy cultural and archeological sites important to many Northern Cheyenne families who have current and former homesteads along the river as well as cut across many settlers’ pasture lands, fracturing their ranches into two, restricting free access to all parts of their range and restricting livestock and wildlife free access to the river for drinking.  The ranchers would need to install expensive and inefficient irrigation systems to sustain their stock.  The railroad would add toxins and sediments to the Tongue River, threatening the ecological stability of the river, as well as two managed fisheries in particular.  And the traffic from repeated trains passing through settlements, including within feet of an elementary school, would cause extensive and unnecessary hardship on communities.

Many rivers around the globe have already been pronounced “biologically dead” due to release of mine waste (called tailings) containing rocks, metals and poisons into lakes and waterways.  Aquatic plant and animal life are choked with toxic sediment.  Surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation and destroys biological soil structure, creating a biological vacuum for noxious weeds to take over after the mining ends.  This loss of biological diversity extends to animal life also.

So called “clean coal technology” is a myth, because all other arguments aside, coal is always dirty at the point of extraction.  Blasting of soil and exhaust from machinery degrades air quality near mines.  Sedimentation and runoff of industrial chemicals and acid rock drainage degrade water quality.  And blasting, digging, bulldozing and other mine activities, as well as chemicals and heavy metals left as waste degrade soil quality.  Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2, may be released by mining.

Short-term jobs created by this developement would be overshadowed by the long-term effects on the land, air, water, climate and social health of Montana’s and the whole Earth’s communities.  Financial benefits to Montana’s students have even been snubbed by some of the students themselves, preferring to have an inhabitable planet instead.

On December 21, 2009, the State Land Board voted on whether to lease the public portions of the Otter Creek checkerboard area for coal mining.  Despite heavy public opposition and testimony, the board voted 4 to 1 to lease the land.  Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction (the very department which stood to gain directly from mining Otter Creek), was the lone dissenter.  In her statement of opposition she said, “We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don’t. We don’t because we want to sustain Montana’s lands for the future beneficial use. That is sound stewardship.”

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