A group of anti-coal advocates will be staging protests at the state capitol for this entire week. The protesters hope to pressure the State Land Board to reject the Otter Creek Mine proposed by the Arch Coal Company.
The Land Board has already approved a coal lease to Arch Coal. But the board has yet to issue a mine permit.
A group of about 50 protesters assembled around the North steps of the state capitol building on Monday; chanting, holding signs, listening to speeches decrying the coal industry, coal dust rising from loud coal trains and plans to start shipping increasing amounts of Montana coal to overseas markets.
The group calls itself Coal Export Action, and it’s made of citizens and representatives from different environmental organizations like Green Peace and Rising Tide. A similar group held disruptive protests when the Land Board approved the lease of Otter Creek land to Arch Coal back in 2010. Some people were arrested.
Arch Coal has been working with The Department of Environmental Quality on the environmental impact statement and mine permitting process for the project since then. State officials say the issue won’t be before the land board again for another year or two.
Lowell Chandler represents the environmental group Blue Skies Montana. He spoke at the morning rally. He admits the protests will probably not cause the Land Board to vote against Otter Creek.
“But what we’re aiming at as a whole here with this Coal Export Action is to build momentum for the movement as a whole,” Chandler said.
College Student Colton Hash was watching the rally holding a sign he painted showing an excavator pouring coal into a truck. The scene looked grim with everything painted in black and red.
“I’ve to express my view of all of this as really dark and really damaging to the land.” He says he knows the coal industry can bring in new jobs, but he doesn’t think it’s worth it.
The sign read ‘Our Economy is already fine, don’t compromise our values.’
“If we just are opening up all these jobs, we’re just gonna get a whole bunch of out of state interests,” Hash said, “Probably a lot of major corporations just exploiting our land. Exploiting our air and water and communities.”
I explained the sign to the Bud Clinch, the Executive Director of the Montana Coal Council. He disagreed with it, saying Montana is a state with a lot of opportunities and a lot of needs.
“Needs for tax revenue, needs for jobs and employment and that can come in all different sectors and I don’t think we should shut any sector out as being an opportunity…provided they all play within the regulatory framework that we’ve set up,” Clinch said.
After the morning rally, the group moved inside, for the beginning of what Chandler described as a ‘nonviolent, peaceful sit-in.’ They will be staging different events and sitting in the rotunda until next Monday, wanting to make their presence known.
The next scheduled Land Board meeting isn’t until mid-September. Land Board Member State Auditor Monica Lindeen voted for the Otter Creek Lease to Arch Coal.
She says all groups are entitled to expressing their opinions, and Coal Export Action is no exception. Yet, she stands behind her record of voting for developing the state’s resources in a responsible manner.
“I’m always concerned about making sure we’re protecting our water. It’s a very important issue to me and making sure we’re reclaiming our land in the best way possible,” Lindeen said.
Still, Louisa Dupuis is happy she travelled down from her home in Arlee for the protest.
“While we do this we’re educating those who are not aware,” Dupuis said. “It puts it on people’s minds and it brings it to the next level and then we can pass legislation to stop it. I really believe in the process. I mean, it feels kind of frustrating sometimes but I really believe. I believe the individual counts and I believe the individual needs to show up.”