Railroad to Disaster? Inland Tribes Fight to Avert Coal-Train Destruction
Objections to several proposals to ship coal to Asia via ports in the Northwest have made their way inland, all the way to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
For that is where the coal is, lying in the largest such reserves in the country in Montana and Wyoming, where more than 40 percent of U.S. coal production occurs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But some Northern Cheyenne tribal members fear that coal mining and the construction of a railroad to transport the coal would devastate their essential Otter Creek and the Powder River Basin.
Allied with hunters, ranchers, conservation groups and the National Wildlife Federation, the Northern Cheyenne are fighting against what they say would be the degradation of the area and its ruinous effects on its multitude of wildlife. Cougars, black bears, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer and pronghorns all roam the forests and sagebrush prairies that make up this portion of the Powder River Basin in the easternmost portions of Montana and Wyoming. Otter Creek, which supports more than 20 fish species, empties into the Tongue River and eventually the Yellowstone River.
The granting of a lease by the Montana State Land Board to Arch Coal to mine the coal beds has unleashed at least one lawsuit designed to protect the environment and prevent mining. At five public hearings in southeastern Montana during late November, residents and advocates voiced their criticism.
“Almost 100 percent of the people spoke out against it,” said Alexis Bonogofsky, a tribal lands program manager for the National Wildlife Federation in that region. “It was conservative ranchers and liberal ranchers. There were cowboys and Indians. Everyone was just saying, ‘We don’t want this train.’ It was remarkable because in some of those communities, like Forsyth and Ashland, the perception before this was that they supported it.”
“I’m against it,” said Lucas King. “One thing really important to us is the water. It’s very pure. It’s the life giver along with the sun and the Earth. The railroad would go along the Tongue River and we depend on it for a lot of things. When a coal mine moves in they take something out of the earth. They don’t put it back the way it’s supposed to be.”
Elizabeth Braided Hair spoke of her concern for wildlife and sustenance. “I eat the wildlife here,” she said. “I live off that. I’m the dry meat maker in our family.”
There was also Waylon Rogers, who grew up along the river, drinking its waters and listening to his grandmother’s stories. “My kids know these stories, and if you put a railroad there, those stories will go away,” he said.
On December 4 a meeting was held in Spokane, Washington, to identify topics for an environmental impact statement. If coal were mined in the Otter Creek drainage and the Powder River Basin, that coal would be hauled by train across Montana, then across northern Idaho and through Spokane en route to an ocean port on the northern Washington coast. That port would be North America’s largest coal terminal with shipments primarily to Asia, most notably China.
The 800 attendees included railroad employees who were concerned about jobs and supported the trains. But the opponents, who constituted about three quarters of the participants, cited dangers posed by railroad crossings, slower emergency-vehicle response time, potential coal-dust-related health problems and other concerns. Some came all the way from southeastern Montana, including nine people from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who made the nearly 1,300-mile round-trip.
“I’m transitioning into something that is a better vision for the future, more involved in renewable energies that should be embraced that we, as global citizens, should embrace,” said Jeff King, Northern Cheyenne, who had been working in the coal industry. “I would like to see our nation embracing renewable energy.”
Burdette Birdinground, a Crow with Northern Cheyenne relatives, drove from the Flathead Reservation. “It will pollute the waters, the air, will ruin the cultural sites in the valley and the hunting grounds,” he said. And Vanessa Braided Hair got emotional when asking the Army Corps of Engineers to “stop the destruction of our Mother Earth.” Her family was the first to homestead in Otter Creek, and many of her ancestors are buried there.
Such sentiments jibe with protests farther west. The Lummi Tribe of northwestern Washington has also spoken against the proposals, based on desecration of ancestral sites and the elimination of fishing areas. A reported 2,000 people attended a hearing in Seattle on December 13, including several Northern Cheyenne who made the long drive from the reservation.
“This is a war cry, a time for all of us to unite as one,” said Jay Julius, Lummi tribal council member, ad the December 4 meeting. “The Lummi Nation will stand behind the Northern Cheyenne 100 percent in anything they need and think we can do to help them protect their sacred land.”