Coal debate heats up as transportation board denies Missoula’s request for public hearing – Missoulian, June 3, 2015

June 3, 2015

Categories: Coal, News, Northern Plains Resource Council

By Martin Kidston

The federal Surface Transportation Board has denied a Missoula City Council request asking the agency to hold public hearings in Missoula as it considers a southeast Montana coal mine and a railroad spur needed to move the ore to distant ports.

Rather, the agency said it will hold an online public meeting for people who live outside the immediate project area.

In a resolution passed in June 2014, city leaders said the Otter Creek Mine and Tongue River Railroad would lead to increased coal traffic through Missoula, and it asked the federal board to hold a local public hearing to hear citizen concerns.

Increased air pollution stemming from diesel locomotives and coal dust could adversely affect the Missoula’s quality of life, the resolution stated.

“Many communities, basically along the coal route from eastern Montana, passed similar resolutions,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “The federal Surface Transportation Board disappointingly and unsurprisingly has declined to do that.”

The city also expressed concern over the proposed mine’s potential to unlock tons of greenhouse gases. The Otter Creek tracts contain roughly 1.3 billion tons of coal and would add 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the city said.

“The effects of climate change from the burning of fossil fuels are felt in Missoula as well as other Montana communities,” the resolution stated. “The Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek Mine would affect the health and well-being of Missoula residents.”

Jeff Smith, co-chair of 350 Missoula, said the transportation board has scheduled no public hearings outside eastern Montana.

Missoula County commissioners and the Missoula delegation to the state Legislature also asked for public hearings in Missoula.

“No one in his right mind thinks the new Montana coal will go to the domestic market,” said Smith. “Instead, it will all be exported to Asia, a journey that begins by train through 1,000 miles of Montana, Idaho and Washington. All our communities that have railroads going through their hearts will suffer.”

Residents in other Northwest communities have voiced similar concerns over the export of Montana coal to the Pacific Rim. The city of Vancouver, Washington, passed a resolution in 2012 urging state and federal agencies to review the impacts of shipping and exporting coal through Vancouver-area ports.

The Bellingham, Washington, city attorney also filed a lawsuit in 2012 to keep an anti-coal train initiative off the November ballot. His effort blocked the initiative, which looked to create an ordinance banning the transport of coal through the city as it headed for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point.

Groups in Montana, including 350 Missoula, are making similar efforts to stop the proposed Otter Creek Mine and the shipment of coal. The groups are hosting a “people’s hearing” Thursday night at the University of Montana to gather comments to send to the Surface Transportation Board.

“Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, and developing this railroad and its evil twin, the proposed Otter Creek coal mine, would release over 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air when coal from the mine was burned,” Smith said. “New trains from the new Tongue River Railroad and the Otter Creek Mine will stress our railroad system beyond its capacity.”


However, others argue that Montana coal leads to jobs and state taxes, and they are pushing political leaders in Washington state to open their shipping ports.

Last year, then-U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to reconsider his executive order to reduce Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions. Inslee’s plan included steps to phase out electricity generated from burning coal.

Daines, who is now a senator, said Inslee’s policy would have “serious consequences” for Montana jobs and regional businesses.

More recently, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., asked Inslee to ensure the draft and permitting process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal was completed.

“With the potential to tap Pacific Rim markets worth over $1.5 trillion, the Gateway Pacific Terminal will create good-paying jobs – blue-collar jobs for Montana and Washington – and provide much-needed tax revenue to all levels of state and local government,” Zinke wrote Inslee last month. “I urge you, governor: Please do not let the Gateway Pacific Terminal become the next Keystone XL pipeline.”

Dennis Watson, spokesperson for the STB in Washington, D.C., said the agency had no comment on why it declined to hold public hearings in Missoula, along with other impacted communities outside the immediate project area.

“We don’t have a comment about that, but we are having this online hearing for people not in the main project area to express their thoughts,” Watson said. “This is an ongoing case.”

The STB will hold an online public meeting on June 17, while 350 Missoula will hold its people’s hearing from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 131 at the Charles H. Clapp Building at UM.


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