Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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.

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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The conversation is interrupted by Snyders, who stands again to tell the group what to expect when the bus arrives at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. She says about 2,000 people turned out for a scoping hearing in Bellingham in late October, and another huge crowd is expected today, yet the agencies are limiting verbal testimony to only 75 people. She says a few fellow anti-coal activists have been standing at the entrance to the Expo Center since 7 a.m., despite the cold and rain, holding spots at the front of the line so Montanans who’ve been driving all day can speak.

When the bus pulls up, the passengers stream off and encounter dozens of people in green T-shirts waiting outside to testify. Those wearing green make up the pro-export terminal contingent. They’re mostly young men who won’t talk to reporters and hold signs with messages such as, “Power Past Fear Mongering. Support Workers.” A few red-shirted anti-coal folks stand at the front of the line, and about 30 people in green shirts wait behind them. They, too, have been here all day.

Meanwhile, across a chain-link fence from the line, a rally begins. Anti-coal activists unfurl a giant “COAL=POISON” sign. A group of local high schoolers form a circle and play bongos. Five older women who call themselves the Spokane Raging Grannies sing anti-coal songs.

At 4 p.m., the doors open. Agency staffers hand those in line a card with a number on it, one through 75, the order in which they’ll speak. The red shirts pour into the vast Expo Center, while several of those in green wheel back around to give their numbered card to someone else.

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A standing-room-only crowd of hundreds fills the room, divided between red and green. Three representatives from the Army Corps, Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County—where the export terminal would be—sit at a table with pens and notepads.

The second speaker is Beth Kaeding, of Bozeman, a long-time member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. “I traveled here with more than 60 Montanans—stand up, because not many of us are getting to speak,” she says. “These coal trains that are hauling America’s energy resources to the coast for export to China do not magically appear at the Washington-Idaho border. They come through and from our state, and the impacts Montanans will experience from increased coal train traffic are the same as those that will be experienced by Washingtonians living in Spokane.” She urges the agencies to expand the scope of the EIS “all the way back to the coal mines.”

The next several speakers aren’t the green-shirted men waiting in line, but representatives from the local chamber of commerce, the regional labor council, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports and the International Trade Alliance. They express a common message: Keep the EIS specific to Washington. And the 25 or so railroad workers and union reps who follow in giving testimony offer the same refrain: We need jobs. The rest of the speakers, including several Montanans, ask for a broader EIS.

The hearing lasts three hours. At the end, almost all of the green shirts are gone. The group of Montanans, visibly satisfied with their showing, leave the Expo Center and re-board the bus, where they’re greeted with good news: Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s office had called to say the senator supports their efforts to be heard, and he’ll ask the Army Corps to hold a hearing in Montana. The passengers cheer, and then settle in for the long ride home.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal EIS scoping comment period ends Jan. 21. Weigh in here.

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