HELENA – The state Land Board, accused by anti-coal activists of rescheduling its August meeting on Friday to avoid a weeklong protest in Helena later this month, quickly voted to advance a proposed state coal lease for an eastern Montana mine.

The board’s action Friday sets up a 30-day public comment period on Signal Peak Energy’s $3.6 million bid to lease coal under state land, as part of an expansion of its underground mine south of Roundup.

The board, composed of the top five elected state officials, will decide at its Sept. 15 meeting whether to give final approval to the lease.

State officials said the lease, if approved, will generate an estimated $15 million for the state over a 10-year period. Signal Peak Energy would pay the $3.6 billion bonus amount, a three-cents-per-acre annual lease, and a 10 percent royalty on the value of the coal mined from state land.

Friday’s meeting had been set for Aug. 20, which is the final day of a scheduled eight-day protest and sit-in the state Capitol organized by Blue Skies Campaign, a Missoula-based group opposing further coal development in Montana.

A half-dozen of its members showed up for Friday’s Land Board meeting at the Helena College-University of Montana campus, and said the change in schedule appears designed to dodge the protesters who planned to be at the Aug. 20 meeting.

“Giving the public a three-to-four-day notice, instead of weeks in advance of the previously announced date, is no way to do this,” said Corey Bressler, a Blue Skies organizer and environmental studies student at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Blues Skies organizers said the anti-coal sit-in and protest, which will begin Aug. 13 at the Capitol in Helena, had been planned to run until the scheduled Aug. 20 Land Board meeting, which was to be in the Capitol as well.

The protest will go forward as planned, they said, beginning with a rally in the Capitol Rotunda.

Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said Friday’s meeting served as the Land Board’s July-August meeting, after its monthly meeting in July had been canceled.

Board members wanted to move up the Aug. 20 date because they had scheduling conflicts and because other issues before the board needed timely action, she said.

For example, the board wanted to approve easement agreements with several pipeline companies crossing state land, so the companies could start construction on the eastern Montana pipelines and beat the end of the construction season, Sexton said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the chair of the Land Board, also told Blue Skies members Friday that the board was not trying to discourage public comment on the coal proposal.

Written public comment on the proposed Signal Peak Energy lease will be accepted until Sept. 4, and the public also can speak at the Sept. 15 Land Board meeting.

Signal Peak Energy is the only company to bid on the tract of state coal, which is within the mine’s planned expansion area.

Bryan Nickerson of Missoula, another Blue Skies member, said the group is raising the alarm against expanded or new coal mines in Montana, particularly the proposed Otter Creek project south of Miles City.

The coal, intended primarily for export to the Orient, will accelerate pollution and climate change and will clog Montana’s railroad system, raising the cost of shipping grain and other products in Montana, he said.

“We’re fighting for a renewable, sustainable economy, as opposed to the boom-and-bust society we have now,” he said.

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