Last week, Rick Bass, the prolific author and activist, found himself in handcuffs, escorted away from the Capitol in Helena, where he and others rallied in opposition to a proposal to mine 1.5 billion tons of coal beneath the Otter Creek Valley in southeastern Montana. The police booked Bass and dressed him in a bright-orange getup and brown plastic shoes.
He won't soon forget the moccasin-like shoes. They were nasty. "Not hygienically nasty, just fashion-wise," Bass says. "They looked like what you'd find on a dead 90-year-old golfer." He says it was humiliating, standing there at the police department in those awful shoes.
"And in the meantime," he says, "the world is burning, and we're subsidizing 1.5 billion tons of sub-bituminous, surface-mine dirty coal from the upper end of the Powder River Basin that's too dirty to burn in this country, so we'll go send it to a developing country"—China—"that can't protest it...Nefarious doesn't begin to cover it."
As state regulators consider the Otter Creek mining permit application submitted in late July by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in the country, Bass is among the activists ramping up opposition to the proposal.
Coal consumption is dropping in the United States, but companies like Arch see opportunity in Asia. Arch's plan is to build a new railroad along the Tongue River to connect Otter Creek to existing rail lines, along which the coal would be hauled to export terminals on the West Coast.
Some will reduce the issue of exporting Montana coal to the all-too-familiar dichotomy of economic development versus the environment. But Bass calls it a moral issue. With Montana holding the greatest coal reserves in the country, and 10 percent of the entire planet's, he says Otter Creek represents a gate that, once opened, won't easily be closed.
"I just think Montanans, entrusted as gatekeepers to the world's dirty coal economy, have the maturity and wisdom and land management stewardship skills and values to say, 'No, not from our state.'"