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031910 otter creek protest
Police remove Northern Rockies Rising Tide member Genevieve Schroder from the state Land Board meeting in Helena on Thursday. Five Missoula protesters disrupted the meeting, at which the board approved leasing 570 million tons of coal in the Otter Creek Valley. Photo by ELIZA WILEY/Independent Record

HELENA - The state Land Board, undeterred by anti-mining protesters who disrupted the meeting for 45 minutes until they were arrested, voted 3-2 Thursday to approve leasing 570 million tons of state-owned coal for development of a mine in southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley.

The vote by the five-member Land Board approved an $85.8 million upfront bid on the coal by Arch Coal Inc., giving the St. Louis mining giant a 10-year window to develop a new mine in the pristine valley 150 miles east of Billings.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who voted for leasing the coal, extolled the long-term economic benefits of a new coal mine in the valley, saying it would bring $5 billion in tax revenue and royalties over the life of a mine and approximately $250 million a year once the mine is operating.

"This is not one-time money," he said. "Every time the Legislature comes to town (every two years), there will be a pot of $500 million waiting for them."

If a mine is developed, it would be operating no sooner than five to seven years from now.

State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch joined Schweitzer in accepting the bid submitted Tuesday by a subsidiary of Arch Coal.

Attorney General Steve Bullock and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau voted against the lease. All five board members are Democrats.

Juneau has opposed leasing the coal from the beginning, saying it's not in the best long-term interest of the state; Bullock has opposed it since the board voted in February to lower the minimum bid price. He said the state is not getting the maximum value for its resources.

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The vote came after five protesters from Missoula disrupted the meeting by chanting "Hands off Otter Creek - you're not listening!" as McCulloch made a motion to approve the lease.

The protesters, who had been sitting in the front row of chairs in the packed meeting room, stood and then linked arms as they sat on the floor, chanting, about 20 feet from the board members.

Schweitzer recessed the meeting and Helena police officers ordered the room cleared, as they waited for other officers to arrive and assist with arresting the protesters. About 45 minutes later, police had handcuffed and arrested the protesters and taken them to the Lewis and Clark County jail to book them on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct.

Arrested were Shelby Cunliffe, 24; Max Granger, 23; Genevieve Schroeder, 21; Mary Rosette, 21; and Michael Phelps, 29, all of Missoula, who said they were associated with Northern Rockies Rising Tide.

Rising Tide describes itself as a network of groups and individuals opposed to fossil fuel development and ready to "take direct action to confront the root causes of climate change."

The governor and other Land Board members then filed back into the room, reconvened the meeting and discussed the lease before eventually voting to approve it.

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Arch Coal has 30 days to sign and return the lease and pay the $85.8 million bonus bid.

Arch was the only coal company to bid on the state's Otter Creek coal by the Tuesday deadline, offering 15 cents a ton as a bonus bid, to give it a 10-year right to mine the coal. If the mine is developed, Arch also would pay royalties to the state on the state coal and severance taxes.

The state coal is interspersed with 730 million tons of privately owned coal, which Arch leased last November for 10 cents a ton.

More than two dozen people came to Helena to speak in favor of the lease, including labor leaders, school superintendents from southeast Montana, area ranchers, economic development officials and even some advocates for the disabled, who said the $86 million from the bonus bid could help the state avoid pending spending cuts that have been proposed to help keep the state budget in the black.

Most of the supporters cited the local and state economic benefits of a new coal mine, noting that eastern Montana is in dire need of good-paying jobs and tax revenue that a mine would bring.

Opponents, which included conservation groups, ranchers and farmers living near Otter Creek and at least a dozen Missoula high school and college students, said a massive coal mine would harm water resources, enable a new railroad in the Tongue River Valley and increase global warming.

Beth Kaeding of Bozeman, past president of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said she found it "ironic and cynical" that the same Land Board planned to vote Thursday to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River against mine development, while voting for a new strip mine near Otter Creek.

"Why is southeastern Montana our sacrifice zone?" she asked.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

 

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