How the West Was Sold for Coal


Coal mining in the Powder River Basin. Photo credit:Carrie LeSeur/Plains Justice

When you hear someone like Mike Scott talk about the beauty of the Powder River Basin, you want to join him there for a fishing or hunting trip right away.

"It is a landscape that breaks your heart with its desolate beauty and abundance of life," said the Montana Sierra Club organizer Mike Scott. "The Powder River Basin embodies the iconic west that so many people on the coasts have seen in westerns, but never get to experience.

"High rolling hills are covered in sage brush and pronghorn. The high, pine covered ridges and sand stone cliffs are the habitat for mule deer and elk. In the low valleys, rich native grasses provide the hay meadows that keep many ranches running and wildlife fat."And it's not just the beauty that's striking about the Powder River Basin, which is geographically described as the areas between the Big Horn Mountains and the Black Hills, north to the Yellowstone and east to the Powder River. The area is rich in history and is home to ranchers who depend on the land for their livelihood.

So with that beauty, history and lifeline for many, why is the Interior Department letting the coal industry plunder the region?

Last month, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar opened the door for 2.35 billion tons of new coal mining in the Powder River Basin.

The Powder River Basin has been described as a "root contributor" to climate disruption in the United States. The region is the largest coal production region in the nation, every year strip-mining nearly 500 million tons of coal, which is burned in more than 200 coal-fired power plants in 35 states.

The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior agency charged with leasing federal coal in Wyoming, has disclosed the region is linked to more than thirteen percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

Although the American West holds enough renewable energy potential to fully power the entire United States, Big Coal is destroying the Powder River Basin by either using up all the water or poisoning it.

"Without the groundwater flowing, the springs dry," explained Scott. "When the springs dry, the surface water stops flowing and the grasses stop growing. When that happens, the ranchers can't support themselves on ranching and have to move on. Without them in the way, the coal companies can just keep eating up the land.

"Where the water is not in danger of drying, it is in danger of contamination. Waste water from the mines and chemicals used on the mining sites seep into groundwater through the thirsty soil and rock. Contaminated water can close a ranch just as quick as no water, and poisoned water kills wildlife just the same as dehydration."

To help protect the region from further damage, last week the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians challenged the Interior Department's sham coal leasing program that still refuses to certify the Powder River Basin as a coal production region. This absurd loophole allows for coal companies to raid lands belonging to taxpayers without going through the proper process that is intended to ensure we all get a fair value for mining on our public lands.

A report prepared by WildEarth Guardians, entitled "UnderMining the Climate," found that in the last twenty years, only three lease sales out of twenty-one in the region have had more than one bidder. Our challenge would make sure the leasing program doesn't allow the easy plundering of such a beautiful area.

The Powder River Basin must be protected - and our government should not be pushing more dirty energy, but rather encouraging and supporting the transition to clean energy.

We can't let Big Coal destroy more livelihoods and more of our country. For residents like Mike Scott, the Powder River Basin is a special treasure that must be protected from the ravages of coal mining so it can be enjoyed for lifetimes to come.

"Last year, I was hunting near a petroglyph site (in the Powder River Basin) when I noticed an arrow head on the ground. I set aside the chore at hand to pick it up and noticed a spear head not far from it. That led me to a scraper, and then an old metallic 45-70 casing that had probably been there for a hundred years. I realized that this special place where I hunt has been a special place for thousands of years."

Read more about coal:
Coal Plants Do $62 Billion of Damage a Year to US Environment
Massive Underground Coal Fire Started in 1962 Still Burns Today
New 'Green Coal' Company Names Itself After the Lorax Without Permisson

Tags: Coal | Pollution