Archive for February, 2010

Land Board waffles, Hellgate High School students protest Otter Creek lease

On Tuesday, February 16, the Montana State Land Board once again made a mockery of the “democratic process,” ignoring the solid and heartfelt arguments of the public as it moved to give Otter Creek away for a pittance, caving under pressure from mega-corporation Arch Coal. At the previous meeting of the Board, a bonus bid of 25 cents per ton was set as a supposed minimum sale price to avoid subsidizing controversial aspects of the Otter Creek mining proposal, such as the Tongue River Railroad. However, a majority of the board members are apparently so desperate to destroy the pristine alluvial Otter Creek valley in southeastern Montana that when no companies accepted the already undervalued price by the February 9 bidding deadline, they voted 3-2 to lower the asking price and try again.

February 16th Mt Land Board meeting

Environmentalists, Northern Cheyenne tribal members, educators, students, ranchers, business people, and Northern Rockies Rising Tide attended the meeting to tell the land board to stop the proposed ecocide at Otter Creek. Gov. Brian Schweitzer received particular attention from the public commenters as he was confronted about his corrupt business affairs such as the $100,000 campaign contribution he reportedly received from Arch Coal Co., the primary corporate interest in Otter Creek.

The only response the land board received by the February 9 bidding deadline was a letter from Ark Land Co., an Arch Coal subsidiary, asking for the price to be lowered. Arch Coal already holds the lease on adjoining coal tracts owned by Houston-based Great Northern Properties. As the state and private lands are positioned in checkerboard fashion, it is widely accepted that the coal could not be feasibly mined by Arch without access to both the Great Northern and Montana School Trust Lands at Otter Creek.

As opponents to mining at Otter Creek faced an increased number of comments by mining proponents, primarily paid union officials pontificating to the all-democrat Land Board about job creation, the meeting took on a more contentious tone than previous ones. Testimony included more direct verbal attacks on the land board members themselves, particularly the Governor. One protester breifly shouted down Gov. Schweitzer about ten minutes into the his twenty minute speech justifying the leasing of Otter Creek (a speech so full of strange non sequiters, including a very bizarre metaphor comparing democracy to a grapefruit, that many of the Governor’s listeners walked away more confused than convinced). As Schweitzer was rambling on about coal bid prices and other purposely convoluted economic rhetoric, the person in the “peanut gallery” yelled out “Your three minutes are up, Governor!” referring to the three minute time-limit set on public comments.

Hellgate students at the courthouse

Students from Hellgate high School in Missoula, MT march against the leasing of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts

Only Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Steve Bullock, Montana Attorney General, voted against lowering the bid price.

Later in the afternoon on February 16, students from Hellgate High School in Missoula marched with chants and picket signs from their school, across the Higgins Street Bridge on the Clark Fork River, to the Missoula County courthouse in protest of the Land Board’s plans to give away Otter Creek to be mined. This is the second protest by high school students in as many weeks about Otter Creek. One week prior, on February 9, students from nearby Big Sky High School left class early in a similar protest.

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Watch the Video:

See our VIDEOS page for full testimonials from Helena.

No bids on Otter Creek, students stage walkout.

The Montana State Land Board received no bids for Otter Creek coal by the 5pm deadline Monday, February 8th.  Though four of the five members of the Land Board voted to receive bids from companies to mine 616 million tons of coal at Otter Creek, near Ashland, MT, the only response submitted was a letter from Ark Land Co. saying that the price was too high.  Ark, a subsidiary of St. Louis based Arch Coal Co., and infamous for swindling property owners out of their families’ lands in Appalachia for King Coal’s war on mountain tops, is reported to have stated that the royalty price of 12.5 percent was more than Ark is willing to pay.  Though no alternative royalty rate appears to have been suggested, state law requires a minimum of 10.5 percent for coal mined from any state-owned land in Montana.

The Land Board convenes next Tuesday, February 16th, in Helena to discuss their next course of action.  They have the option of lowering either the royalty or bonus bid prices in hopes of winning over some bidders.  They could also decide to stay true to some board members’ December 21, 2009 affirmations that the state will not subsidize Otter Creek development through rock-bottom prices.

“The State of Montana will not subsidize the Tongue River Railroad,” said Gov. Schweitzer during the December 21st meeting, referring to the rail line proposed to provide easy access for Otter Creek coal to the national rail system.  The railroad has been opposed by area property owners and ranchers for over three decades due to excessive ecological, social and economic impacts it would impose on the Tongue River area.

Big Sky students rally against Otter Creek coal.

In Missoula on Tuesday, February 9th, about 100 students from Big Sky High School walked out of class early to protest the proposed leasing of Otter Creek coal, and to send a message to the Land Board that students do not want coal mined in their names.  The Otter Creek coal tracts are located under state school-trust lands, which means all income the state receives from exploitation of those lands should be used to fund the state’s education system.  After leaving classes in defiance of Big Sky administrators’ efforts to enforce school authority, many students then marched about a mile to the busy intersection of South & Reserve where they held a rally, chanting slogans such as “No blood for money!  We gotta keep Otter Creek!”

“We, as students from Big Sky High School, do not want our school funding to come from coal,” said Allison Lawrence, one of the protesters at the rally.  “We would rather live with old books than get blood money for shiny new computers.”

Students walking out of class in protest.

On Thursday, February 11, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will submit its official recommendation to the Land Board about a next course of action to be taken at the February 16 meeting.  It is worth mentioning that the only member of the Land Board to vote against leasing Otter Creek at the last meeting is Denise Juneau, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the very institution that would supposedly benefit financially from mining Otter Creek!  If other members who voted for leasing the coal tracts only on the condition of getting maximum income from the lease stay true to their words, then next week’s meeting could result in an end to this whole misguided attempt to destroy pristine Montana land.  A refusal to lower the bid and royalty prices may effectively protect Otter Creek… for now.

Join Northern Rockies Rising Tide and others at the next Land Board meeting, 9:00am on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at the Montana State Capitol in Helena.  Help us make sure that Montana’s top politicians know that their attempts to mine Otter Creek are lacking the consent of Montanans!