Start with a street demonstration. It’s 8 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 16. Sixty people holding signs and chanting are strung out in a line, two or three deep, across North 27th Street blocking the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks that divide Billings into north and south.
Chant: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, coal exports have got to go!”
Sign: “Asia gets the energy, we get the bills.”
Sign: “Big profits for polluters.”
Sign: “Are you ready to stop for 20 more trains a day?”
“Billings pays,” says another sign. “Overpasses and underpasses.”
Chant: “We pay, they gain – coal exports are a drain.”
Red lights blinking
These people aren’t stopping automobile traffic. Red lights blinking and bells clanging and closed gates have done that, to allow a long train of cars heaped with coal to clatter by, behind the chanters, heading west.
The Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, a local affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council, has advertised this rally for days. “Good timing,” I remark to Becky Mitchell, the chairman of YVCC. “Did you know that a coal train would be coming by at this time?”
“No, we just lucked out.” But Mitchell lives by the railroad, she says, and coal trains start rolling early in the morning.
The last coal car slides by. No caboose. There haven’t been cabooses at the end of trains for years. No people to watch what’s happening at the rear of the train. It’s like ending a sentence with no punctuation. A little electronic sensor on the last car is supposed to alert whoever is controlling the engine up front, speeding up or slowing down the train — and possibly someone watching a screen in a faraway office – whether any problems are occurring. Like a brake failure. Electronic boxes are cheaper than people.
Traffic flowing again
Now at the railroad crossing, the red lights – also remotely controlled – stop blinking, bells stop clanging, and the demonstrators move back to the sidewalk, exhilarated, as the gates lift and car traffic begins to flow both ways again.
Some people in the cars honk in support of the demonstration. From one car comes a shout I can’t decipher, but sign-carriers shaking their heads tell me it’s negative.
People clump up on street corners, waiting for the Walk signal. While waiting, a person acting as cheerleader calls out, “I say No, you say Coal. No!” she shouts.
“Coal!” shout the people.
“No!” she shouts again. “Coal!” they reply.
It’s time for the people to stream into the Crowne Plaza Hotel and up to the third floor where Northern Plains is holding its 41st annual meeting.
Living on the frontlines
Coal is not the only topic, but coal and the extraction of oil or gas locked up in deep deposits of shale by fracking (hydraulic fracturing) take up half the day’s agenda. Much of this has to do with the effects of mining or drilling on the underground water that feeds wells and springs in this semi-arid country and allows farmers to grow crops and ranchers to raise cattle or sheep.
About half of Northern Plains members are farmers or ranchers who face daily assaults on their land and way of life, largely from extractive industries. They’re on the frontlines.
The other half are town or city dwellers, conservation-minded people who support the people of the land. It’s a coalition that’s not supposed to happen – not as the story is told in mainstream media – but it’s worked since 1971. What’s changed since then is that the town and city dwellers also perceive themselves, more and more, as living on the frontlines.
The coal trains are a prime example.
Coal from strip mines in the Powder River Basin — or from Signal Peak, an underground, longwall mine in the Bull Mountains — is loaded on trains, all of which must run though the Billings-Laurel nexus. Most of the trains head west, through other towns and cities between here and the Pacific.
The impacts: coal dust and diesel fumes tainting the air, noise, delays at railroad crossings, decreased property values, with few to none of the health, safety, environmental or infrastructure costs being paid by mining companies or the railroad.
Once at the coast, in existing ports — with more proposed to be built – the coal is loaded into humongous boats and floated across the Pacific to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China to be burned in power plants and returned to us, in five or six days, in the form of pollution and also in the form of more carbon-loading of the atmosphere.
All of us are on the frontlines
The Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency considering a permit for the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, Wash., but so far has refused to hold any public hearings in Montana to address impacts over the 500 miles of this state through which coal trains must travel. (The period for comments on the Longview Terminal expired two days after this Northern Plains meeting, on Nov. 18.)
Basin by basin
The first panel of the day was called “Montana’s Water in the Era of Oil and Gas Development” and covered citizen involvement with state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on basin-by-basin water planning.
Two Northern Plains members taking part in this planning process mentioned positive developments in certain watersheds where water rights holders are trying to work with each other and with other stakeholders like fishermen and recreationalists to maintain in-stream flow and still irrigate their crops. But, particularly in regions where fracking was occurring, they mentioned their growing frustrations.
“I’ve never seen the state Oil and Gas Commission deny a drilling permit,” Eric VanderBeek said, “but no one is looking at the impacts when drilling into aquifers and casing them.” He pointed out that the Department of Environmental Quality deals with quality issues while DNRC deals with quantity issues and this jurisdictional morass is compounded by whether county government or the local water conservation district is also involved.
“A citizen trying to find out what to do about a problem,” he said, “can get into a big agency run-around.”
Competing or overlapping jurisdictions may be an even larger problem on Indian reservations. Deb Madison, environmental program manager for the Fort Peck Tribes (Assiniboine and Sioux), discussed how her reservation – “right on the edge of the Bakken Shale Oil Play” – is dealing not only with various state agencies but also federal ones while attempting to regulate well drilling, wastewater and solid waste dumping, wetlands preservation and other impacts from the Bakken boom in her region.
Subvert the dominant narrative
One of the signs at the outdoor rally read, “What about farming and ranching jobs?” This heralded a move into agricultural issues happened in the next panel, called “Fair Food Vision.”
Members of the Northern Plains Ag Task Force engaged the audience in an unveiling and frank discussion of “the dominant narrative” foisted for decades upon family farmers and consumers alike by massive industrial agriculture corporations and international food traders – with the willing and longtime collusion of the federal government dating back at least to the 1950s.
This “narrative” has driven people off the land, not only in the United States but in places like Mexico, where grain merchants dumped cheap subsidized U.S. corn into that country, underselling and thus undermining the traditional corn-based local economy there, driving displaced farmers north across the U.S. border.
Giant factory farms, crowing about efficiency, produce poor quality (and sometimes unhealthy) food with low nutritional value, the panelists asserted, and they urged the audience to help the Ag Task Force rewrite the narrative, write our own narrative.
Honor the Earth
The lunchtime keynote speaker was Winona LaDuke, an Ojibway woman who founded and co-directs Honor the Earth, which supports indigenous environmental groups working to “re-localize” food and energy systems, reverse climate change through renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, and … honor the earth.
Showing a short film about harvesting wild rice on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, where she lives (“it’s between Bemidji and Fargo”), then showing slides of people and places and projects as she spoke, she had an enthralled audience laughing, applauding, gasping and cheering as she mingled stories from her own life with a penetrating critique of “empire” – our “highly inefficient, addictive society” that relies on “extreme energy – mountaintop removal, fracking, deep ocean drilling” now that the easy-to-extract fossil fuels have run out.
Raised in southern Oregon, she was on her high school debate team in the early 1970s when the topic was “Resolved: that the U.S. should have a national energy policy.” She said when she had to argue the affirmative on the issue of uranium mine safety, her team could never beat “those kids from Eugene. There was no debate. You can’t mine uranium safely.”
Later she worked on the Navajo Reservation against uranium mining. But before that she went to Harvard, then Antioch, thought of becoming a lawyer but realized “I’d be spending all my time getting my relatives out of jail” and besides, “Change is not made by lawyers but by social movements.”
She became an economist with advanced degrees in rural economic development “because I’m interested in how to get control of the economy. We want the right to determine what our communities look like.”
‘Reserves’ as liabilities
As an economist, she considers the “reserves” of extreme energy sources owned by global energy corporations actually to be “liabilities.”
She said, “I’m not a patriot to a flag. But I am a patriot to a land.”
Indigenous teachings tell us four things, she said, which are totally opposite to what the industrial system tells us:
1. The Creator’s law is the highest law, higher than politics.
2. We are all related, all of us animals, winged, hoofed, finned, with paws or opposable thumbs.
3. Natural things are not linear but cyclical.
4. We need to be aware of the impacts of our actions to the seventh generation after us.
“Is that radical?” she asked. “No, that’s conservative.”
She said, “The predator looks at us as isolated. Break the isolation! This is us! We’re all in this together.”
She said, “What a great spiritual opportunity we have as people to do the right thing. Be those people.”
End of coal export bubble?
The last panel I attended was called “From Wall Street to Otter Creek: The Future of Coal and Our Communities.” It began with an analysis of “coal export economics” by Clark Williams-Derry, who is programs director of Sightlines Institute, a Seattle-based think tank.
His power point presentation took us through “the end of the coal export bubble” with information about how cost of production, distance from trans-Pacific markets – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China – along with competition from suppliers of coal nearer to those markets, and China’s aggressive move into renewable energy, were all working toward pricking that bubble.
Another huge factor, Williams-Derry acknowledged, is pollution. China, while still building coal-fired power plants, has tapered off, understanding that pollution in cities like Beijing has become unacceptable, and that China now aspires to become the world leader in renewable energy technology.
Passing on land and values
Jeanie Alderson spoke next. A rancher who, with her family, operates the Bones Brothers Ranch near Birney, she showed slides of her home country, in all seasons, the Otter Creek country in the Tongue River watershed. She read an essay dedicated to South Dakota ranchers who were devastated by an early fall snowstorm and lost thousands of cattle.
Called “Gathering,” it describes the gathering of the cattle in fall. “Our entire year depends on our ability to find our calves,” she wrote. “It is hard to put into words the ancient covenants we have with our land.”
She spoke about the threat of coal to the integrity of the land, how coal developers come in threatening and promising at the same time, saying they can “mitigate” the damage – or you could sell out, get rich, and just move away.
“Some of us can’t be ‘mitigated,’” she said. We belong to this land, “we own it, we can pass it on – but we want to pass on our values as well.”
She acknowledged this land used to be the territory of her neighbors, the Northern Cheyenne, but said that both the Cheyenne and the ranchers needed to join hands to keep out the coal and the railroad.
Teach the grandchildren
This set up some final words by Tom Mexicancheyenne, who has lived on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation for 60 years, who works in the community health care program, participates in tribal ceremonies, has nine grandchildren, and speaks to business and political people about why we must care for the land.
There was a strong Native American presence at this meeting. Deb Madison from Fort Peck. Many Northern Cheyenne and Crow people attending to commune with Winona LaDuke. And Tom Mexicancheyenne, who spoke of big storms, the typhoon that blasted the Philippines, the tsunami several years ago in the Indian Ocean, as signs. Here are some of his words.
“If we go on this way, Mother Earth won’t be here. We won’t have water to drink. The animals won’t drink it. These signs we are seeing – we’re running out of time. I am trying to teach my grandchildren. These plants, these animals, they’re watching us. They remember. Don’t take anything for granted. Live good. Take care of yourself. Take care of the Earth, and the water. Don’t disrespect anything. Money only brings more greed.
“When buffalo came back to the Northern Cheyenne, big fences wouldn’t hold them. They needed to run free. Other big animals came back then, bears, cougar, wolves. Before we just had foxes, coyotes. This change has to happen everywhere, not just on our reservation or on the Tongue River. It has to happen everywhere around the world.
“We’re running out of time. Scientists will tell you this in an educated way. Speak from your heart, don’t speak from your mind. When you speak from your heart you tell the truth. People from other tribes, other nations, they have to hear the truth. I have to go back to my reservation and tell the truth. A message we all hear but we’re not listening.”