Guest opinion: Montana officials should seek facts on coal exports

2013-12-20T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Montana officials should seek facts on coal exportsBy STEVE CHARTER The Billings Gazette
December 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Just who is Montana Attorney General Tim Fox working for anyway?

Recently, he wrote 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 Millenium Bulk Terminal at Longview, Washington, would ship about 48 million tons of Wyoming and Montana coal to Asia annually. A Dec. 18 guest opinion by state Rep. Austen Knudsen echoes that same notion.

Northern Plains Resource Council is disappointed that our attorney general and some legislators – who are supposed to represent Montana’s citizens – have taken such a position before all the facts are known about how increased coal export train traffic will affect us. In fact, their position seems to be that they don’t want the facts to be looked at.

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

The effects of increased coal train traffic generated by the Longview coal port would ripple across Montana. If the coal companies’ export plans ramp up to what they are projecting, residents of Billings, Columbus, Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls, Shelby, Whitefish, and more could see several times the number of coal trains passing through their communities each day. This increase in coal trains will create financial costs to taxpayers and affect health, public safety, and day-to-day life.

Crowding out grain

Because track capacity is finite, coal train traffic will also impact Montana’s largest industry – agriculture. Bakken oil traffic has already led to the closing of a grain elevator in Sidney that farmers had depended on for decades. If the sought-after explosion in coal traffic materializes, it could crowd out grain shippers on the Northwest rail system.

Furthermore, while coal exports to Asia would generate billions in profits for coal and railroad companies, it is 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 Fox and Knudsen get their way.

Strip mining impacts

Northern Plains and other Montanans also have 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 contain water, but strip mining tears open these aquifers, drying up springs and wells, damaging agriculture and wildlife. This damage to the underground hydrology is rarely fixed, which is why coal strip mines have such a dismal record for leaving behind permanent damage to underground hydrology. A 2011 state report listed only 0.1 percent of mined lands as fully reclaimed.

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

Why has Attorney General 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 are Fox and Knudsen advocating for it? Exports would 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 Chair of Northern Plains Resource Council.

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