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Remember The Tongue River Valley

As you happily prepare for a fun-filled July 4th weekend the State of Montana, DNRC, The State Land Board and Governor “Coal Cowboy” Schweitzer are busily drawing up plans to utterly destroy the Tongue River valley. Two public meetings were held this week, one in Miles City and another in Lame Deer to seek comments on the appraisal of the Otter Creek coal tracts. You remember Otter Creek. This is the nearly free windfall that would bring the state $1.4 billion over the next four decades. All that is required from us is to ignore a bit of rape and pillage on one of the

Tongue River Valley - Marcin Roguski

Tongue River Valley - Marcin Roguski

most beautiful parts of Montana.  The state owns something like 600 million tons of coal just south of Ashland via a shady deal with the feds in 2002. The other half of the coal reserves are owned by Great Northern Properties, the largest single owner of coal reserves in the U.S. GNP president Chuck Kerr says “Great Northern Properties is in Montana to do one thing and one thing only and that is to get its coal developed. That is all we do.”

There are a couple of minor problems with selling the Otter Creek leases that need to be worked out however. The coal is very high in sodium content (7%-8%) which causes slag problems in conventional coal-fired boilers. The market is only about 20 million tons per year compared to the market for Wyoming coal which is around 400 million tons/year currently. All of that 20 million tons is already provided by other Montana mines. We have found a few power plants in the northeast that we might be able to foist some of our crappy coal off on though. It will cost about $200 million just to get the mine started. The Governor wants to build a coal-to-liquids power plant on the site, but he’s the only proponent so, that’s probably not going to happen. Secretary of State Brad Johnson called the plan for a coal-to-liquids plant a “pipe dream” and GNP doesn’t support the idea.

The Otter Creek tracts are fairly remote and right now there is no way to get the coal to the tenuous market. Got that covered too. The Tongue River Railroad Company has been trying to get a 150-mile rail line built between Miles City and Decker, where they can tie in to the main BN line, for about 30 years but they didn’t have anything to haul. Now they would have Otter Creek coal. There are a couple of problems. Though most of the line has been permitted, the environmental assessments are 20-30 years old. They were done haphazardly in three sections over many years. They don’t consider the recent increase in coal-bed methane development. They don’t consider proposed power plants to burn the coal, proposed pipelines or transmission lines. There is nearly unanimous opposition by all landowners along the route. The railroad will affect tens of thousands of acres of productive ranch land and is almost surely a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). It would be incredibly expensive, coming in at $500-$600 million. Building the Tongue River Railroad may just act to open up new markets for cleaner coal from Wyoming. In fact, there are some worries that Wyoming producers may just buy up the leases to assure that the Montana coal never comes into production. If you build a shorter rail line, say just from Miles City to Otter Creek, or from Otter Creek down to Decker, it doesn’t have the advantages of common carrier status which means no right of eminent domain against those unruly ranchers and probably no easy financing. The railroad will impact many ranches, cross many small streams, imperil endangered species, increase sediment in the Tongue River, impact several prehistoric and historic cultural sites, cross a bunch of public roadways, put out lots of harmful emissions and noise… Oh yeah, they also want to build the railroad through the Miles City fish hatchery. We have a $25 million investment in the hatchery and it has the only population of endangered, disease-free pallid sturgeon in the country. Vibration from the several trains per day will affect the larval and egg stages of the fish in the hatchery. Low level vibration can harm the reproductive viability of developing fish. And then there is that tricky global warming thing. But hey, did I mention $1.4 billion!

DNRC and the State Land Board will be accepting public comment on this stupid proposal through July 31. Written public comment may be submitted to DNRC by letter, fax, or email. Letters should be addressed to: Monte Mason, Minerals Management Bureau Chief, Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, PO Box 201601, Helena, MT 59620-1601. Letters by fax should be addressed to Mason and sent to (406) 444-2684; comments may also be emailed to Mason at mmason@mt.gov.

See the MEIC, Montana Conservation Voters and Politics, Peaks and Valleys for more information.

It might also not hurt to contact individual members of the Montana State Land Board:

Brian Schweitzer, Governor  406-444-3111 Contact Web Page
Steve Bullock, Attorney General 406-444-2026 contactdoj@mt.gov
Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction  1-888-231-9393  OPISupt@mt.gov
Monica Lindeen, State Auditor 800-332-6148   email Dave at dvannice@mt.gov
Linda McCulloch, Secretary of State 406-444-2034 sos@mt.gov

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2 Responses

  1. […] have blogged on Otter Creek. For a great start, Button Valley has done a number of pieces. Remember the Tongue River Valley and Maybe We Shouldn’t Otter are two that contain a number of links to other sources, […]

  2. Great summary of just another one of Governor Schweitzer’s idiot energy projects.

    When this boondoggle started under Racicot with the federal buy-out of the New World Mine on the border of Yellowstone Park, the then-head of the Montana Coal Council came in and testified to the Land Board that they should “take the money ($10 million the feds were offering), not the coal.” His logic was straightforward — it was federal coal already and anyone could have leased it at any time. They didn’t, for all the reasons you elucidate. Then Montana dumped in $300,000 of state money under Martz to do the assessment of how much coal was there…another waste of state funds.

    One wonders why a Democratic governor would continue down the same path as his Republican predecessors. Remember Schweitzer’s campaign schtick — “It’s a New Day” — well, it isn’t. It’s the same old, same old, only now we have a Demo cheerleader for, of all things, dirty old coal.

    Thanks for laying it out so succinctly. Hopefully the Tongue River Valley won’t become the next sacrifice zone for Schweitzer (like burying millions of tons of Saskatchewan’s carbon dioxide waste on the Hi-Line).

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