The Top 5 Moments In Our 2013 Fight To Stop The Otter Creek Coal Mine

from Wildlife Promise

It was a rough year for Arch Coal. Their stocks are in the tank, their credit rating keeps getting lowered and oh yeah, they still don’t have a permit for their proposed Otter Creek mine.

But 2013 was a great year for those of us fighting to protect the beautiful and remote Otter Creek valley from a massive coal mine. Alliances and networks were strengthened, hundreds of new people became engaged in the fight, communities came together and this mine still doesn’t have a permit.

Looking back on a year of many successes, I picked the top five moments that I think everyone who cares about Montana, our wildlife, global climate change and our democracy should know about. I don’t go into depth but there are links on each story if you want to learn more.

And, in the order that they occurred, here they are.

Drumroll please.

1. Northern Cheyenne tribal members show everyone what free speech looks like.

Northern Cheyenne tribal members rally outside the tribal building before the scoping hearing. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Northern Cheyenne tribal members rally outside the tribal building before the scoping hearing. NWF photo by Alexis Bonogofsky.

Starting the year off strong, on January 17, over 200 Northern Cheyenne tribal members, local ranchers and conservationists attended the Otter Creek EIS Scoping Public Hearing hosted by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Just for a quick background, in recent years, our government agencies have tried to move toward “open house” style public hearings instead of the traditional public hearing where people stand and give their testimony in front of their fellow citizens, agency staff, companies and decision makers. At its core, I believe this is a concerted effort to prevent the public from learning from each other and a way to mute conflict on controversial projects.

About 100 folks showed up to a pre-hearing rally holding signs and wearing Beyond Coal bright red t-shirts in front of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Headquarters. When the hearing was supposed to start, as a group that was growing every minute (we ended the evening at around 200 attendees), we walked into the hearing room, carrying our own microphone system. Our spokesman, Tom Mexican Cheyenne, informed the DEQ that this would, in fact, be a true public hearing. Here is part of Tom’s speech:

I just wanted to say to you, when you come here you are coming to where we live. I ask you to respect that. We don’t talk to microphones, we talk to people. We also talk to people so the rest of our people can hear what is being said. And that is the way we’d like to go about this. Is to have our people tell you how they feel about what you are planning and want to do here to this country. We have elderly people here and other people who have something really important things to say. And we really feel that it needs to be heard by everybody and not just to a microphone or one individual sitting here switching a switch on and off. So we don’t want that here.

We ask that you to respect our ways. This is why we are here as a community and as people that live in this area. Thank you.

Northern Cheyenne and local ranchers testified for over three hours. Only one person spoke in favor of the mine. Arch Coal staffer Mike Rowland left after two hours. DEQ staff stayed and listened the entire time.

The Takeaway: In Montana, especially in Cheyenne country, if we don’t get the public hearing we deserve, we hold our own.

2. Northern Cheyenne tribal members host large Inter-Tribal No Coal Gathering in Lame Deer, Montana.

Kaden Walksnice mans the Save Otter Creek sign at the Inter-Tribal No Coal Gathering in Lame Deer. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky

Kaden Walksnice mans the Save Otter Creek sign at the Inter-Tribal No Coal Gathering in Lame Deer. NWF photo by Alexis Bonogofsky.

Shortly after the Otter Creek public hearing, NWF Tribal Lands Partnerships Program, ecoCheyenne and Sierra Club organized a major Inter-tribal No-Coal Gathering on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in February to coincide with a DEQ hearing on Arch Coal’s permit application called an “Informal Conference.” Over 250 Northern Cheyenne attended the gathering as well as tribal leaders and activists from the Yakama Nation, Southern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota and Three Affiliated Tribes.

Tribal leaders spoke about the impacts from coal and other energy development on their communities. Statements of solidarity were read from the Salish Coast Gathering and Lummi Nation. After this event, the Oglala Lakota Nation passed a resolution in opposition to the Otter Creek coal mine and Tongue River Railroad. 

The Takeaway: Tribes, conservationists and agricultural producers are coming together to fight coal. The network from the plains to the ports is growing stronger every day.

3. The State of Montana Rejects Arch Coal’s Permit Application With Over 40 Pages of Deficiencies.

Mike Rowland, Arch Coal's Montana Director talks to Northern Cheyenne tribal members gathered for the Otter Creek Scoping hearing. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky.

Mike Rowland, Arch Coal’s Montana Director talks to Northern Cheyenne tribal members gathered for the Otter Creek Scoping hearing. NWF photo by Alexis Bonogofsky.

In mid-April, the Montana DEQ sent Arch Coal an over 40 page page deficiency notice detailing the extensive shortcomings in Arch’s application that covered hydrology, mine operations, reclamation, wildlife and plant studies, and other topics. NWF and our partners detailed the deficiencies for DEQ during the Informal Conference held in Ashland, Montana.

Arch Coal has not resubmitted an application.

Oh, and this is why the Otter Creek Coal Mine will never be built. 

The Takeaway: Arch Coal does not have a permit. The Montana DEQ is not working on an Environmental Impact Statement.

4. Tongue River Railroad Environmental Impact Statement delayed at least a year.

Coal Train

Coal Train. istockphoto.com

In early September, we found out that the due to the extensive scope of study for the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Tongue River Railroad ordered by the Surface Transportation Board and pushed for by NWF and our partners, and because of a “budget crunch”, the projected release date for the draft EIS would be pushed back at least until fall of 2014. This was welcome news since we were all expecting the Surface Transportation Board to release the draft EIS in the early winter of 2013.

The Takeaway: The Tongue River Railroad does not have a permit.

5. Lummi Totem Pole Journey Begins in the Otter Creek Valley.

Brad Sauer, local rancher, shakes the hands of the Lummi totem pole carvers. Photo copyright Paul K. Anderson. All rights reserved.

Brad Sauer, local rancher, shakes the hands of the Lummi totem pole carvers. Photo copyright Paul K. Anderson. All rights reserved.

In a major event covered by USA Today, a 22-foot totem pole hand carved from a 300-year-old Western red cedar tree by Lummi master carver Jewell James was blessed by Kenneth Medicine Bull on the banks of Otter Creek with over 100 onlookers including Northern Cheyenne tribal members, local ranchers and a group of students from Birney. The Lummi, along with many other northwest Tribes and Plains tribes, are fighting coal exports because of the impacts on the environment, cultural sites and treaty rights. 

In addition, the work to protect the valley and the event won Conservation Story of the Year from the Montana based Cinnabar Foundation. To learn more about the event, see additional photos and learn how it came together, please click here.

The Takeaway: The proposed Otter Creek mine is both a global and local fight and people will respond accordingly. If developed, the mine would impact people and wildlife from the mine site through the rail lines and the ports, not to mention the impact on global climate change.

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Students from Birney Day School get check out the Lummi Totem Pole. Photo copyright Paul K. Anderson. All rights reserved.

Students from Birney Day School get check out the Lummi Totem Pole. Photo copyright Paul K. Anderson. All rights reserved.