Kicking the Coal Habit
America may be coming to grips with the dark side of our cheapest, most abundant energy source, but a plan to unload it on Asia threatens to poison our planet.
Scrubbers, which saturate coal smoke with water, remove some of the poison-laden ash. The contaminated water is then shot into the plant's "ash ponds." By any definition coal ash is hazardous waste. But when it appeared that the EPA would designate it as such and thereby require the industry to invest in safe disposal, coal ash got designated as mere "solid waste."
The plant's certificate from the state Board of Natural Resources and Conservation required that the ash ponds not leak. So when they began poisoning entire aquifers then-owner Montana Power got a court to allow "seepage," as if this were somehow different than "leakage." PPL claims to have lined some of its ash ponds with plastic, but leakage (seepage) appears to be ongoing. Fifty-seven citizens sued PPL for damage to their water, collecting $25 million in 2008.
Water for steam, pumped from the Yellowstone River, is stored in a "surge pond" that overflows into Armells Creek and, according to residents, drowns cottonwoods and wipes out productive ranchland for miles to the west by drawing salts from the earth and converting grass to cattails.
"Coal is cheap," Rosebud mine's neighbor Nick Golder told me at his ranch just north of Lame Deer, "because the industry doesn't pay its bills." Golder started ranching here in 1947 and since then has spent more time than he can afford working to save the local livestock industry from the mine and power plant. "Ranchers are independent people," he said. "But we saw we had to join together, and we formed the Northern Plains Resource Council. Anyone in the proximity of the strip mine has lost water. If reclamation was done properly, it would restore aquifers, too. Downwind of the power plant grass is stunted and won't head out [go to seed]. Upwind it's mostly fine. Misting [spraying ash water heavenward to evaporate it] puts the stuff back in the air that they took out in the first place. We laugh at a dog for chasing its tail, but at least he doesn't pay to do it."
Perhaps because of past overgrazing the Powder River Basin is often perceived as desiccated and dead, but it is rich wildlife habitat with rolling hills cloaked in grasses, shrubs, and trees. I was reminded of what's at stake when Golder's ranching partner, Brad Sauer, drove me in his pickup truck through backland too rough for my rental car. Barely visible on distant slopes, white pronghorn rumps mixed with black steer backs like rice and beans. Mule deer filed across ridgetops. Raptors soared. A cock pheasant sprinted into sage. At an ancient homestead a coal seam showed in a rock formation three feet above ground. We dismounted to inspect golden sandstone spires inscribed with Indian petroglyphs and 19th-century rancher graffiti. To our south rose Deer Medicine Rocks, on which Sitting Bull, inspired by a prolonged fast, carved his accurate vision of Custer's approach.
Above the basin's shallow coal deposits dwell cougars, bobcats, bears, elk, deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and 250 bird species. In the words of Mike Scott, this is "the iconic West that so many people on the coasts have seen in westerns but never get to experience--a landscape that breaks your heart with its desolate beauty and abundance of life."
In Forsyth I met Clint McRae, another Rosebud neighbor, rancher, and Northern Plains Resource Council activist. When I asked him how he felt about the coal around his ranch going to China, he said: "If it's for a plant in the United States, that's one thing. But they're talking about using condemnation to take my private land [for a rail line] so they can haul coal to a communist country. This is a game changer."
McRae views what's planned for the Powder River Basin in the same light as TransCanada Corporation's proposal to seize the property of U.S. citizens and endanger them and their wildlife by piping the planet's dirtiest oil across America's middle for sale to China (see "Tarred and Feathered," July-August 2011).
"There are people furious with Obama for calling the bluff of Congress and taking another look at the XL pipeline," he declared. "He did a gutsy thing. Finally someone stood up. Republicans used to represent property rights; they used to represent me. Now they represent multibillion-dollar corporations. . . . Go to any ranch in Montana that has been there for 100 years like this one, and you'll find one common thread--water quantity and quality. The mine and ash ponds are wreaking havoc with ranching operations. It wouldn't be this way if the state and federal government enforced existing laws."
But enforcement rarely happens. For example, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has the authority to force PPL to clean up its ash ponds and to fine it $10,000 for every day it contaminates ground and surface water. It has done neither. And ranchers are suing the department for allowing Western Energy to dewater and poison their springs and wells.One of the litigants, Doug McRae (Clint's cousin), reports that six of his cattle died when they drank from a spring polluted by mine runoff.
This hasn't stopped Montana's governor, Brian Schweitzer, from busily promoting the Asian coal market, and from preparing to sell the coal under its remote, wildlife-rich Otter Creek area. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the mining, transport, and burning of that coal will foul the planet with 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal is now a director of Arch Coal. And the current Wyoming governor, Matt Mead, a strip-mining enthusiast, "recognizes" Asia's need for our coal.