Guest opinion: Seek more facts, not less, on coal port – Great Falls Tribune, Dec. 6, 2013

December 10, 2013

Categories: Coal, News, Northern Plains Resource Council

By Steve Charter

Just who is Tim Fox working for anyway?

Recently, Montana’s attorney general sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Washington urging them not to study a proposed coal port’s impacts on Montana. The proposed Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview, Wash., would ship about 48 million tons of Wyoming and Montana coal to Asia each year.

Northern Plains Resource Council is disappointed that our attorney general — who is supposed to represent Montana’s citizens and communities — has taken such a position before all the facts are known about what increased coal export train traffic will mean to us.

Fox’s letter is in sharp contrast to the comments sent by several Montana towns, state legislators, public health boards, and more than 1,000 Montanans who asked that the impacts this coal port would have on Montana be included. In sending his letter, Fox has sided with coal companies against Montana communities and citizens.

Increased coal train traffic that would result from the Longview coal port would cause significant consequences all the way back through Montana to the coal mines. Billings, Columbus, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula, Great Falls, Shelby, Whitefish, and all the smaller towns and communities in between will experience the impacts. If the coal companies’ export plans ramp up to what they are projecting, Montana could see a doubling (or more) of the number of coal trains passing through our communities each day. This increase in coal train traffic will create financial costs to citizens and communities, and affect health, public safety and day-to-day life.

While coal exports to Asia would generate billions in profits for coal and railroad companies, it is local tax dollars that will have to be spent to upgrade crossings and other infrastructure in communities that face increased coal traffic. Unless something changes, we — not the railroads — will be the ones paying for overpasses and quiet zones.

Montanans shouldn’t be forced to subsidize coal exports to Asia by funding these projects, but that is exactly what would happen if Tim Fox gets his way.

Northern Plains and other Montanans have real concerns about increased coal strip mining.

The destruction of land — often productive agricultural land — is obvious. Less obvious is the damage to aquifers.

Coal seams are filled with water, but strip mining tears open these aquifers, drying up springs and wells, damaging agriculture and wildlife. And coal strip mines have a dismal record when it comes to reclaiming the land and water they disturb.

In a 2011 report, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality listed only 12,412 acres of land surface reclaimed to pre-mining soil and vegetative conditions out of the 38,561 acres that have been strip mined. Even more disturbing, complete reclamation — meaning restoration of aquifers — has only been achieved on 57 acres, or 0.1 percent of the mined land.

To make it worse, the ill-conceived Tongue River Railroad will condemn and tear apart good Montana ranch land — people’s private property — as it starts that coal on the long journey to Asia.

Why has Fox hired an out-of-state consultant (at taxpayer expense) to lobby for this coal-to-Asia scheme while disregarding Montanans he was elected to represent?

Consistent with the coal industry’s history, this entire boondoggle rests upon shoving costs onto the public. So why is Fox advocating for it?

Exports would only give coal companies the profits, Asia the energy, and leave Montanans paying the costs. Our state deserves better.

Steve Charter of Shepherd ranches above an underground coal mine in Montana’s Bull Mountains, and is the newly elected chairman of Northern Plains Resource Council.


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