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The Real Impact of Montana Coal

coaltrainIt’s mid-December here in Button Valley. We barely have a skiff of snow on the ground and temperatures are in the thirties. Did I mention it’s mid-December? While we are doing okay on precipitation, mainly due to a quite wet spring, we have received only about a third of our normal snowfall. There’s a reason for this, and a reason for why it seems to have become the new normal. That reason is related to changes to the Montana climate due to our unfortunate national addiction to fossil fuels.

This morning there was a news report about a U.M. study, funded by the Chamber of Commerce, on the economic impact of coal mining in the state. The study relates that “expanding the state’s coal mines would significantly impact Montana’s economy.”

Patrick Barkey, director of the UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said expanding Montana’s existing coal mines and developing new mines would boost jobs, household income and tax revenues across the state.

Now, I realize that these studies are funded by profit from coal mining in the state and the authors are somewhat anxious to produce a product that fits with what their backers want to hear, but it seems to me that they also claim to be economists and academicians and I am always a bit mystified when they fail to investigate the true cost of mining, transporting and burning carbon in their analyses.coal

It was only earlier this week when thousands of protesters, including many from Montana, traveled to western Washington to protest the building of five new coal terminals on our coast to ship western coal to Asia. These protests were ostensibly about the economic, health and social costs of transporting millions of tons of coal across the country, but of course protesters also were there to remind everyone that there are costs to sending our resources overseas that can’t be counted in jobs, income and tax revenue. There are currently 16 to 23 trains passing through the city of Billings every day. The new coal terminals would increase that number considerably, possibly by eight to ten more trains. The coal trains will add “snarled traffic, emergency response delays, toxic diesel and coal dust emissions, the risks of coal train derailment and toxic spills” all along their route to the coast.

Once the coal arrives at it’s final destination, most likely China, it will be burned in out-of-date, highly-polluting power plants in order to produce cheap products that will be shipped back to the U.S. To get those cheap doodads Montanans will suffer increased incidence of asthma in children and adults, and increase in emphysema and bronchitis, stunted lung development is children, an increase in poisonous mercury in the air we breath, more lung cancer, more heart attacks, more emergency room visits, more strokes as well as an increase in mental retardation and stunted development in our children.

Need we get into the environmental effects? We are already familiar with those here in Button Valley. We now get more of our precipitation as rain, less snow in the winter and lower summer and fall streamflows which means that we see earlier and faster runoff and trouble filling our reservoirs. Our spring freshet now comes, on average, two weeks earlier, our forests are dying due to both insect infestation that is no longer controlled by cold winters and more and larger wildfires. The country at large is seeing more and  larger storms. We see increases in hunger, malnutrition, starvation and famine around the world due to droughts, storms and flooding.

So, like I say, I’m a bit baffled when trained economists see only benefits to strip-mining our coal and fail to even mention the real costs to the people of Montana. Our Coal-Cowboy Governor has said that if we don’t strip and sell Montana coal, China will get it elsewhere.

China will find coal even if the United States won’t deliver it, said Herb Krohn from the United Transportation Union. “All we would do is force (China) to buy dirtier, more-polluting coal,”

These arguments, to me, seem akin to stating that the State of Montana should be selling meth, because if we don’t do it, addicts will just buy it elsewhere. Yes, there are short-term benefits to mining Montana coal, but when you include the longer-term and hidden cost of the toxic assault on our population just burning our rocks for profit doesn’t look nearly so smart. Think about it folks, while we may reap a small profit, our children will pay the ultimate price.


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