Guest Opinion: State’s lawsuit ignores the fate facing coal

By Joan Kresich
February 16, 2020

Attorney General Tim Fox has chosen to waste our taxpayer money to fund a lawsuit against the state of Washington whose sole purpose is to give the coal industry an adrenaline jolt. Washington refused to be bullied into expanding the Millennium Bulk Terminals to export Powder River Basin coal. Fox’s lawsuit claims that coal companies have a constitutional right to force the community of Longview, Wash., to accept the port, striking a potential blow to local control of land and water rights.

Montana citizens (and Washington residents) overwhelmingly voiced their opposition to the proposed Longview coal port during public hearings in 2013 through 2016. Why? Because our rail communities live with the daily disruptions and health risks of long coal trains rumbling through our towns. Livingston, where I live, is one of those towns.

Seemingly endless coal trains (often 100 cars long) routinely park at the depot in the center of town. They often sit for hours while tracks are freed and pusher cars are readied for loads to be carried up the Bozeman pass. During those hours, vital crossings are blocked, posing a real threat to public safety as emergency vehicles are stuck behind the tracks separated from people in need. Imagine the increased safety risks with the dramatically expanded train traffic a new port would demand.

Coal dust blows into our businesses, homes and lungs. We see evidence of fugitive coal dust around the tracks, on cars, and during winter as black smudges on white snow. Coal dust contains heavy metals like lead, chromium and mercury. Multiple studies have shown exposure to both coal-train related coal dust and diesel exhaust increases the risk of lung, heart, growth and development problems. The elderly, young children and pregnant women are some of the most at-risk populations. The coal companies say it’s too expensive to cover the cars.

There is no force on Earth that can save the coal industry from the laws of economics. Coal is no longer competitive. Coal companies are going belly up at an amazing clip. The vast majority of Powder River Basin mining is done by companies that have recently faced bankruptcy. Meanwhile, other sources of energy, including renewables, are now cheaper than coal. This is also true internationally, with Moody’s Investor Service recently downgrading its economic projections on coal ports due to market volatility, low prices, and weakening demand.

In our system, we believe the market determines which endeavors rise and which fall. Fox is wasting taxpayer dollars on a market that doesn’t exist.

There are other disturbing issues with this lawsuit. Do we want Montana setting a legal precedent of heavy-handed interference with other states’ rights to act in their own interests? State and local decision-makers denied the port due to its impacts to local waterways and public health. Would we want the state of Washington or any other state to claim the right to determine how we utilize our rivers and waterways, our mines, our forests? Tim Fox’s actions strike a blow to local control and property rights.

The one and only beneficiary of this lawsuit is the coal industry. Why should our tax money be diverted from underfunded community needs to serve a private business?

The two fastest growing occupations in the U.S. are both in renewable energy fields. Montana is already striding into the 21st century green energy boom with new wind and solar added day-by-day. We’re placing our state right where it belongs, facing forward into a cleaner and more reliable energy future.

Our coalfield communities deserve support. Many have dedicated long careers to mining a resource that has given us electricity. Instead of forcing an unprofitable industry on a community that has spoken a loud “no,” let’s use our resources to help coal towns transition to the needs of the 21st century economy creating a new, dependable, long-term vitality.

Joan Kresich is the co-cair of Yellowstone Bend Citizens Council, a grassroots organization based in Livingston that organizes local residents to advance renewable energy projects.

Originally published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.