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Children For Coal, let’s trade

There is a very sincere opinion piece in the Billings Gazette yesterday by Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association listing the benefits to education from leasing the Otter Creek coal tracts. He argues that leasing the tracts will provide an estimated $57 million in bonus payments to the state, millions in royalties and will create Montana jobs. There have been some serious doubts raised about the revenue numbers used to justify the leases, but for now let’s not talk money.

We all know that education funding in Montana is a mess. In 2004, a district judge found that Montana is violating its own constitution by failing to adequately fund public schools. The state pumped millions more into state schools, but the issue is not yet resolved. The state provides only a little over 60% of school funding. Only about 10% of school funding comes from state trust lands like the Otter Creek tracts. The rest of the funding comes primarily from property taxes, along with a little federal money. We spend over a billion dollars a year educating Montana children. Trust lands generated about $85 million this fiscal year. A few million dollars from selling Otter Creek coal will not significantly affect funding for education in Montana.

Let’s look at some of the real costs of mining, transporting and burning over a billion tons of poor quality coal. A recent study concluded that coal emissions contribute to 10,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. Burning coal is our number one source of air pollution. Each pound of coal produces about 2.5 pounds of CO2. Burning fossil fuels causes thousands of asthma attacks, respiratory disease, heart attacks, and premature deaths in the U.S. each year. Children, the very ones we seek to help, are the most severely affected by particulate emissions from power plants. Another study found that,

  • Fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants cuts short the lives of nearly 24,000 people each year, including 2800 from lung cancer.
  • The average number of life-years lost by individuals dying prematurely from exposure to particulate matter is 14 years.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer each year from asthma attacks, cardiac problems, and respiratory problems associated with fine particles from power plants. These illnesses result in tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost work days each year.
  • Power plant pollution is responsible for 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks per year.

Mining and burning the coal will require millions of gallons of water a year. Burning coal emits CO2, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and other toxic pollution. Heavy metals stored in coal ash at the plants pollutes groundwater and drinking water sources. Mining coal causes massive environmental devastation. 20,000 acres of Montana would be strip mined to dig up the Otter Creek coal reserves. Coal mining kills thousands of miners worldwide each year. Selling the Otter Creek coal will mean that your neighbors farming and ranching in the Tongue River valley will have their land condemned and stolen by developers for the proposed rail line. Sediment loads will increase in the Tongue River. The Montana Environmental Quality Council report saysThe Tongue River Railroad project, which will have a permanent, irreversible impact on tens  thousands of acres of the most pristine land in Montana, is in clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).” Just the air and noise pollution from hauling thousands of rail cars full of coal per day (mostly from Wyoming) up and down the Tongue River valley would be a disaster.

Jobs? Maybe a few. Coal mining has become much more mechanized in recent years requiring fewer actual miners. Mountain top removal mining uses very few people, mostly just gigantic machines. This year for the first time, the number of jobs in wind energy exceeded those in coal mining.

Yes, it is the job of the state trust lands to provide for the funding of education.  The law requires us to manage those lands for the benefit of education “while considering environmental factors and protecting the future income-generating capacity of the land.” Are we really considering environmental factors and protecting the trust lands by scraping off the top of our mountains and polluting the planet for future generations of our children? The human cost of burning coal is much more than we would ever get from leasing Otter Creek. It’s not just about the money. I hope we are better than that.

Contact the members of the State Land Board before their Dec. 21 meeting and express your opinion on leasing Otter Creek coal.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer — (406) 444-3111, governor@mt.gov

Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau — In-State Toll-Free 1-888-231-9393, Local (406) 444-3095 OPISupt@mt.gov

Attorney General Steve Bullock – (406) 444-2026 contact doj@mt.gov

State Auditor Monica Lindeen – (406) 444-2040 mlindeen@mt.gov

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch – (406) 444-2034 sos.mt.gov

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