Coal in their stockings 

Land Board Democrats vote for Otter Creek mine

More than a hundred people gathered at the foot of the Capitol's staircase in the dim dawn of the shortest, darkest day of the year. Many had traveled hundreds of miles from all over Montana to voice their objections to leasing the enormous but hugely problematic coal deposits at Otter Creek. When the talking was done and the votes of the state's Land Board were cast, however, only Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau had the guts, wisdom and vision to vote against the leases. As for Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Attorney General Steve Bullock and State Auditor Monica Lindeen, switches and coal in their stockings is exactly what they deserve for their ignominious votes.

The morning began with speeches outside the Capitol from Montanans whose lives and future would be affected by the Land Board's votes. The crowd ranged in age from babes in their mother's arms to elders in their 80s, but they all had one message: "No to Otter Creek."

After waiting through an hour of the Land Board's agenda, they were given a scant three minutes each to make their case, no matter what was at stake, no matter how complex their issues. As one frustrated witness, who traveled more than 700 miles to testify, said: "Come out to the Tongue River and let us show you what's going to happen on the ground. I guarantee you, we'll give you more than three minutes of our time."

Ranchers whose families had been in the area for generations spoke eloquently of what the impacts from the mine and railroad would mean to them. In every case, the development of the mine and the construction of the Tongue River Railroad, which would be necessary to move the coal to market, will cut long-held family ranches in pieces, prevent cattle from accessing the river's water, disrupt and perhaps destroy precious existing wells and springs, and bring a substantial and some said catastrophic change to their rural agrarian life.

They were joined by Missoula high school students who came to plead for their future—a future, they said, that was so imperiled by global climate change they felt the consequences of burning all the new coal would not be worth the revenue it produced. And not just for them, as they stated with wisdom beyond their years, but for their kids, too.

A Missoula teacher succinctly summed it up, saying, "Sure, you can say the extra money raised from mining the coal will go to my students, and sure I could use a raise, and we could use new textbooks for the school." But like the students, the teacher cited the destruction global warming is already causing, concluding that although he could be seen as "speaking against his own interests," they "didn't want the funds if it was coal money."

Others addressed the environmental fragility of the alluvial valley floor where the coal is located and the enormous impacts such mining would likely have on surface and ground water. The thousands of tons of sediment expected to wash into the river was likewise outlined for the board, with the expected consequences for everything from irrigation to aquatic life.

The testimony went on for two hours, with opponents to the massive proposed coal mining far outnumbering supporters and filling the second-floor gallery with signs urging the board that they "Otter not do it." The small handful of proponents for the mine came from the usual bunch of special interests that seem to find any and all development of Montana's resources worthy of their support. Jobs and money, not long-term impacts, were their main concern.

That the motion to approve the leases was made by Secretary of State Linda McCulloch came as no surprise, since she supported virtually every mining, logging and resource extraction activity proposed to the Land Board during her tenure as the former superintendent of public instruction. While always claiming it was "for the kids," she did not bother to go into detail about how the burning of so much coal, which is expected to release billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, would affect the future life and environment of those children.

The statements from Attorney General Steve Bullock concentrated mainly on tonnages of coal being shipped to and from various locations and seemed totally disconnected from the issues raised by the opponents. Even worse was the feeble speech given by State Auditor Monica Lindeen, who mainly thanked everyone for coming.

Worst of all, however, was the Big Guy, Schweitzer. After a couple head fakes and some lip-service to global warming impacts on Hawaiian islands, the governor slipped into a disingenuous speech on how, if mining and burning coal is so bad for the future, well, then the same case could be made for wheat farming because some of the wheat is turned into white bread and cattle ranching because some say we eat too much red meat. "Where does it stop?" he asked, ignoring that what we eat is a personal decision while what we breathe and what happens to the global climate is decided for us by unconscionable votes like his.

In the end, the real heroine on the board was Juneau, who relied on the wisdom of her tribal ancestors to guide her vote. Citing what she had learned from the seven generations of the past and what she must do to protect the seven generations of the future, Juneau declared, "I must vote against this" to thunderous applause.

Unfortunately, Juneau's tribal wisdom and great vision had little effect on her fellow board members, who were mostly concerned with what price they'd get for the coal. Perhaps they'll get their chance to find out what a chunk of coal is worth when they shake it out of their stockings on Christmas morning. It'll be just what they deserve.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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