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Scrapbook: Beating the Drums Against Coal in Montana

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February 12, 2013

Beating the Drums Against Coal in Montana


When the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) tried to mute public opposition to the proposed Otter Creek coal mine in southeastern Montana, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and members of the Northern Cheyenne Nation called them on their tactics and made their voices heard.

The Otter Creek coal tracts, below, contain approximately 1.3 billion tons of coal that, once strip-mined and burned, would emit roughly 2.4 billion tons of climate-disrupting pollution into the atmosphere. Otter Creek Coal, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, has leased 616 million tons of that coal from the State of Montana.

Photo by Kestrel Aerial Services, courtesy of the Montana Environmental Information Center

The DEQ set up a "scoping hearing" in Lame Deer, Montana—home of the Northern Cheyenne tribal headquarters—to accept public comments on the Otter Creek project. But instead of allowing people to stand up and speak in public, DEQ set up an "open house" which provided information but effectively kept public comments off the record.

"The open house format features a lot of different tables where people can mill around," says Montana-based Sierra Club organizer Mike Scott. "But if people want to comment they have to go sit down with someone from DEQ instead of being heard by the public. When people get up and speak in public, it's a totally different dynamic—it can make others think about the situation differently. The open house format was a way for DEQ to make sure they were controlling all the information."

That's Scott, below at left, with Northern Cheyenne activists Martin Braided Hair and Tom Mexican Cheyenne.


The scoping hearing in Lame Deer was one of several on the Otter Creek project, all held in communities near the proposed mine, so the Sierra Club, NWF, and Northern Cheyenne knew about DEQ's open house tactic in advance. "We were able to organize the group together pretty quickly and develop a plan," Scott says.

We'll let Scott describe what ensured:

"We turned out about 80 people to a pre-hearing rally in front of the tribal offices. A bonfire started in the parking lot and hand drums and singing filled the 15-degree air with traditional honor songs. At 6:00 PM, the crowd had swelled to about 100, all wearing red Beyond Coal t-shirts and carrying anti-coal signs. Lame Deer and the surrounding area are home to about 2,000 people, so it was a good turnout.


"We then marched into the hearing room, carrying our own PA system, and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. Our spokesman, Tom Mexican Cheyenne, turned on the PA system and told the DEQ that this would, in fact, be a public hearing, and as guests in Cheyenne country the DEQ should respect the tribe's wishes. He said that if you believe something, you should be able to say it in front of your community, and that it was the Cheyenne way to speak to their community.


"DEQ acquiesced in front of that sea of red shirts and signs, so we formed a line and the testimony began. Three hours later the DEQ really wanted to leave. During the entire hearing, only one person spoke out in support of the mine, while about 45 gave moving testimony against the project and asked solid questions that are now part of the public record.

"As one rancher put it at the end of the hearing: 'I deeply appreciate my Cheyenne neighbors once again showing me, the state of Montana, and Arch Coal what free speech looks like.'

"The next day, the new president of the Northern Cheyenne issued a statement ordering all departments to prepare for community meetings in all six districts of the reservation in order to reevaluate the tribe's formal position on Otter Creek. The previous tribal administration had supported the development and that policy currently stands by resolution of the council. This is the first step in changing that position."

Photo by Kestrel Aerial Services, courtesy of the Montana Environmental Information Center 

Above and below, aerial views of Otter Creek.

Photo by Ecoflight, courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation

Background: In March 2010, Otter Creek Coal, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, leased 616 million tons of the Otter Creek coal tracts from the State of Montana. But in granting the lease, the Montana State Land Board failed to adequately weigh the environmental and economic consequences of the lease or consider any alternatives that might be more beneficial to the state.

The Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club filed suit against the Land Board over that failure, and in January 2011, a district court judge denied the state and Arch Coal's motion to dismiss the case, which alleges that the state should have considered environmental, economic, and public health threats before leasing the Otter Creek coal reserves to Arch Coal for strip mining.

The court agreed with the environmental groups and explained that the defendants' position would allow state agencies "to convert public property rights to private property rights, stripping away [the Montana law's] special protections before even considering possible environmental consequences."

The leasing of the Otter Creek coal tracts has set in motion a series of events that will have profound impacts on local farmers and ranchers, ground and surface water resources, and the abundant wildlife in the area—not to mention the 2.4 billion tons of greenhouse gases that would be released into the atmosphere when the coal is burned.


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