Coal train coming 

Plans to ship millions of tons of coal across Montana have fueled new debate over an old industry

I was a month into my first job out of college at a tiny weekly in southeastern Montana. I was 22, bored and lonely. But I had a car, and that counted for something.

To see what was out there, I drove 70 miles to Ashland, a strip of Forest Service field offices, bars and cafes. The waitress pouring coffee at one of the diners told me she lived with her parents in a nearby Amish colony, though they weren't Amish. She also said she was going to high school on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, though she wasn't Indian. I thought she'd make a fine novelist someday. She didn't make good coffee.

From Ashland, I took a right down a dirt road that followed the Tongue River. The valley was wide and flat, and the river practically folded over itself as it wound to its confluence with the Yellowstone. Custer died fighting just one valley over, and his legacy lived on, with the river forming the border of the reservation and splitting one town into two, Birney and Indian Birney—though their populations together could barely justify the ink needed to put a dot on the map.

I took a small hike, rousted some jackrabbits from the sagebrush, and wrote a bad poem about it all. And I didn't think about coal.

Not that there wasn't coal to think about. In fact, I had just driven straight through King Coal's primary Western realm. I was a left turn and 15 minutes from the Decker Coal Mine—once one of the biggest surface coal mines in the country—when I decided to head home to Hardin, which itself hosts a small coal-fired power plant fed by a mine owned by another area tribe, the Crow.

click to enlarge The Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Wash., is one of five coal-export terminals in various stages of development in Oregon and Washington. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAA
  • Photo courtesy of NOAA
  • The Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Wash., is one of five coal-export terminals in various stages of development in Oregon and Washington.

Geographically, King Coal's realm is the Powder River Basin, which sits mostly in Wyoming but pokes a finger into Montana. Coal is so prevalent there that local tribes considered the land sacred, as the deposits would naturally catch fire and send smoke up from the ground. In the 1970s, major coal mining began in earnest in the area, and by 1987, Wyoming had become the largest producer in the country. Today a full 44 percent of America's coal comes from Wyoming and Montana; West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania combined produce less than 20 percent. And make no mistake—in America, coal is still king: 45 percent of our electricity comes from the steam of burning coal pushing generator turbines.

Yet until about a year ago, the fact that the heart of America's coal-mining industry had shifted hardly raised an eyebrow in some sections of the West. But plans to ship millions of tons of coal across Montana and eventually through Washington and Oregon have recently become the stuff of Congressional action and the daily news.

Obscured by the hand-wringing over the immediate effects of coal exports, however, is the wider story—a veritable drama of duplicitous billionaires and government deals, with the very viability of the American coal industry hanging in the balance.

click to enlarge New terminals in Washington and Oregon could result in millions of tons of coal being shipped from southeastern Montana to the West Coast. That coal would eventually be exported to China. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • New terminals in Washington and Oregon could result in millions of tons of coal being shipped from southeastern Montana to the West Coast. That coal would eventually be exported to China.

••••

Clint McRae feels sold out. Even if he wasn't standing in full cowboy regalia on the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center, McRae would cut a striking figure. His father, Wally McRae, is a well-known cowboy poet in the Rocky Mountain region, and Clint possesses the same performer's gravitas, though he stays away from verse himself. He's also enormous, bred from folk who'd made their living contending with Angus cattle.

McRae and other ranchers from southeastern Montana have been fighting coal companies for years, but this was the first time he'd had to catch a red-eye flight to Seattle to enter the ring. At the convention center, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Ecology are hearing out proponents and opponents of a proposed coal-export terminal north of Bellingham, he stands calmly like a bull as people in color-coordinated T-shirts reading "NO COAL" and "JOBS NOW" bustle around him.

McRae is downtown because before the first lump of coal reaches Puget Sound, it will likely pass through his ranch on a rail line that is still but a steely glimmer in the coal industry's eye.

The Tongue River Railroad is an idea that has cropped up time and again over the years—as McRae puts it, "Every time we think about putting up new cattle fencing, they start talking about putting in that rail." That a railroad company could condemn a strip of his ranch to ship coal that isn't even going to keep American lights on is especially galling to him. "When we heard they were going to be shipping to China, we were like, what the hell?" McRae says.

But all that doesn't get to why he feels sold out. One must go back to the first Clinton administration—or maybe even to Frank Mars' founding of his candy empire in Tacoma—to understand that grudge.

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