It’s official. The proposed Tongue River Railroad is done. Today the Surface Transportation Board issued a decision officially ending the Tongue River Railroad. On November 25, 2015,...
By now the demise of the Otter Creek mine is old news. I thought I should write something about it but I didn’t. Talking to a good...
By now you know that Arch Coal declared bankruptcy. We all knew it was coming. At first I didn’t think there was much to say about it...
Denise Juneau is doing exactly what I thought she would in her campaign for Montana’s lone seat in Congress; she is spending time, and a lot of it, in Montana’s tribal communities. This isn’t a new thing for her but I believe it is what will help her beat Ryan Zinke for U.S. Congress in November.
I was tempted to go into a litany of voter statistics but I’m not going to. It is a well-known fact that Montana’s Native American voters are a powerful constituency despite many challenges they face even being able to vote. Her efforts, and those of Western Native Voice, in Montana’s tribal communities will help make an even bigger impact this year.
The cool thing about Denise Juneau is that although I’m positive she knows the true impact of the Native American vote in Montana – how it pushes statewide Democrats over the hump – she isn’t doing it because of the math. You can tell she is spending time in tribal communities because it is the right thing to do and she actually cares. It’s a real thing in a political world that is hard to navigate because all we hear is rhetoric and spin.
Juneau, who is enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe, will give Montana’s Native Americans the representation that they deserve. I haven’t talked to her about this and I don’t spend my time working for any political party but I know she understands the challenges and the opportunities that Native American communities are facing and won’t just give lip service to policy issues that need urgent attention on tribal lands.
I am looking forward to voting for her in November.
It’s official. The proposed Tongue River Railroad is done.
Today the Surface Transportation Board issued a decision officially ending the Tongue River Railroad. On November 25, 2015, the Tongue River Railroad Company had asked the STB to hold the application in abeyance, which means they wanted the STB to suspend work on the permit application but keep the docket open until the proposed Otter Creek mine received a permit from the state of Montana.
On Earth Day, April 22, 2016, the Surface Transportation Board met and decided to deny the Tongue River Railroad Company’s (TRRC) request to keep the docket open, officially ending the entire proceeding at the STB.
Today, on April 26, 2016, it was officially announced.
If you want to get into some details, here is a brief timeline of what happened with the legal proceedings leading up to this decision.
On December 11, 2015, shortly after the TRRC asked for their application to be suspended yet remain open, Northern Plains Resource Council and Rocker Six Cattle Co., who have legal standing in the proceeding, filed a motion to deny and dismiss with prejudice the TRRC’s application. Dismissing with prejudice means that the TRRC could never come back to the STB with another permit application for the project.
Then, on January 15, 2016, TRRC filed a notice stating that Arch and Otter Creek Coal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They argued that the bankruptcy didn’t affect the status of the mine permit or the rail construction application.
On March 10, 2016, TRRC filed a supplement to its petition stating that Arch Coal was suspending their efforts to secure a mine permit from the state of Montana. The company continued to maintain that the permit application in front of the STB should remain open.
Northern Plains and Rocker Six responded on March 15, 2016 arguing that Arch Coal’s decision to suspend work on the mine permit application was even more evidence that the STB should dismiss the Tongue River Railroad permit application.
On April 5, 2016, TRRC responded stating that Arch Coal still possessed a lease from the State of Montana for the coal tracts and that energy markets can change quickly.
On April 15, 2016, NPRC and Rocker 6 responded stating that over half the coal tracts are leased from Great Northern Properties Limited Partnership, and that that entity terminated the lease months ago.’
On April 22, 2016, the STB met and decided to dismiss TRRC’s application without prejudice.
“We will deny TRRC’s request to hold this proceeding in abeyance and instead dismiss the proceeding without prejudice. At this time, there appears to be little prospect that Otter Creek Coal’s mine permit will be secured in the foreseeable future. Otter Creek Coal and its parent, Arch, have both filed for bankruptcy, and Otter Creek Coal has suspended its application for an MDEQ mining permit indefinitely. While it is possible that Otter Creek Coal or another party could restart the mining permit application process in the future, it is unclear whether and when this might occur. Therefore, to keep this docket open would serve no purpose.”
Today, as I was doing research for an article I’m writing about bottled water and Nestlé, I came across a photo of a dead young Albatross with a stomach filled with plastic. To be exact, it was twelve ounces of plastic and it died because, obviously, its intestinal system couldn’t process it. That basically sent me into spiral of nihilism that almost compelled me to head to the local bar at noon.
This is relevant because I am sitting in a wonderful little town in west Texas, thousands of miles away from my friends, family and my dogs, feeling slightly out of place and uncertain of my surroundings. Feeling lonely, combined with trying to write about something in which being bombarded by the world’s problems courtesy of the internet, is very much a de-motivator.
Let me take a step back.
There are wonderful, energetic students from the Wild Rockies Field Institute that camp on my farm every year as part of their trek across Montana to learn about energy issues. Besides the fact that I keep getting older and they stay the same age, I love having them there. We tour the farm and I show them where the 2011 Exxon oil spill was and introduce them to the goats and the mean rooster named Chicken. We talk about coal mines and railroads, oil spills and pipelines and the relationships between the government and corporations and where the public fits in, or doesn’t.
In the end, they always ask me versions of the question, what can I do? It is one of the only questions I hesitate to answer. It’s too big and abstract. I don’t do abstract. I look behind me for someone that knows what they’re talking about but usually it’s just my border collie Lena playing with a stick trying to get their attention.
For people who work in advocacy and public interest, that question might seem easy to answer; get involved and make your voice heard. Do what you can, where you are at. Learn about the issues. When I hear those things all I hear are vague generalities that most people have a hard time connecting with.
I have a hard time answering their questions because I have the same feelings all the time. Does what I do matter? Do my individual actions make a difference to all of these massive problems that are causing the suffering of life everywhere? Whatever social or environmental problems there are, what I do know is that they are probably connected and you could spend your life trying to fix them. That, combined with the sheer number of issues and complex interactions between them, can be paralyzing and not just for people starting out.
When I do try to answer the question, my mind races around like a ping pong ball and jumps from vague to specific things; be kind, don’t buy bottled water, listen, get to know people who aren’t like you, don’t be a dick, pick a place and save it, try not to be judgmental, stop staring at your phone, don’t lecture people (no one likes that), call your Senator, call your Representative, call your City Council member, and on and on. Did I say be kind and stop staring at your phone? And what am I talking about? I never call my Representative.
I’m pretty sure that I say something different every time.
I am making myself write about it because I need to understand what is really being asked and because I don’t know the answer to the question. I hope through the process of writing and talking to others about it I can find a little bit of clarity myself.
So instead of writing what I’m supposed to be writing about, I’m writing about writing about it. I have no argument or conclusion or profound realization.
I’ll start again tomorrow.
By now the demise of the Otter Creek mine is old news.
I thought I should write something about it but I didn’t. Talking to a good friend a couple weeks later, I told him that it felt weird to write, photograph, organize and spend a significant amount of my life and emotional energy on something and then let the end of it pass without a note or retrospective. He told me that I’ve already written everything I needed to. He was right. I was content to sit back and just let myself be happy that it was over.
And yet there will probably always be something more to say because the struggle in southeast Montana taught me bigger lessons about community, about politics and about people.
In March of 2010, when the state of Montana leased the coal tracts to Arch Coal, most people were convinced there was nothing to be done. Once the coal was leased the issuing of permits seemed inevitable. As we all know government agencies aren’t in the business of denying permits. However, during those six years, the Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad never received a permit, not one.
Sometimes the distances between southeast Montana and Helena felt insurmountable. I’m not sure the people who held the fate of the valleys in their hands really understood that the core resistance to this project didn’t stem from an attachment to a certain political ideology or from outside environmental groups.
The resistance came from local people who held wildly different political views but all cared deeply about a place. That is why we won. It’s that simple. Hundreds of people, who cared nothing about credit, attention, money from donors or environmental politics, spent their time and their own money to involve themselves in our democracy. You can’t sustain six years of grassroots opposition and public involvement if the people don’t truly care about the place they are trying to protect.
For many in Helena and Washington D.C., southeast Montana and the proposed mine were abstractions. They weren’t personally connected to the place so it made the Otter Creek valley just words on a map, a place for mining. That bureaucratic abstractness made it hard for them to understand or care that the issue was the very real destruction of a real place that would impact real people.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the Livingston Enterprise ran an editorial last year entitled, “There is a place for mines but it isn’t on Emigrant Peak.”
That phrase lodged itself in my brain; a place for mines. I’m not politically naive. I recognize the usefulness of the tactic, but, as someone who works and lives in an area that others think is a place for mining, I also recognize the enormous damage that it does. The sentiment was echoed in a recent opinion piece about the proposed gold mine exploration near Yellowstone National Park by a local business leader. It reads,
Lest we forget how the Otter Creek mine happened. In order to protect the greater Yellowstone ecosystem from a gold mine, taxpayers paid a Canadian gold mining corporation $65 million dollars and federal lands in other places to give up their mining claims around Yellowstone National Park. Later, taxpayers spent another $8 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to finish the purchasing of the land from a private owner. To appease the Governor of Montana, who argued we were losing out on revenue and job creation, the federal government transferred the Otter Creek coal tracts to the state of Montana. Although there were those that spoke out against the trade and tried to stop it, it still happened. Not many people were willing to spend political capital on the Otter Creek valley, a place for mining.
What could we accomplish together if we stopped treating our working landscapes differently than, what Wendell Barry calls, the ‘gated communities of the wild?’ We must recognize the value of protecting our working landscapes, like the Otter Creek valley, as much as we recognize the value of protecting the great wild lands of our state, like the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The places that we love, and we all have them, are connected. Water, air and wildlife don’t recognize human created boundaries.
We must guard against, in our actions and our words, myopic strategies that have real consequences for other places. Are there communities “better suited” to large scale industrialization and mining? Who gets to make that determination? How will this new fight to protect the greater Yellowstone ecosystem end?
Rarely do local communities have a choice in the matter, rather it is imposed upon them by corporations and governments. Large scale industrialization, and the associated environmental and human health consequences, usually happens in places that don’t have the resources, political and financial, to fight back. This is the type of thinking that leads to sacrifice areas.
Ground zero is the in the eye of the beholder. Some projects are more disastrous than others depending on your position in time and place, both geographically and financially.
We don’t gain anything by breaking up Montana into places for mining and places for protecting. That doesn’t build community. That doesn’t build power.
Lucky for all Montanans, the people working to protect the Otter Creek and Tongue River valleys succeeded by traversing that space that exists between communities, cultures, political ideologies and landscapes.
They made a place for protecting.
By now you know that Arch Coal declared bankruptcy. We all knew it was coming. At first I didn’t think there was much to say about it beyond what the news articles were reporting but then I read Tom Lutey’s recent story in the Gazette and I think it is worth addressing the comments by John Tubbs, the director of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources (DNRC).
Tubbs told Lutey that it was unlikely that Arch Coal would let Otter Creek collapse given the amount of money they had invested so far.
“If I were the court, I probably wouldn’t let them abandon it,” Tubbs said. “There’s value to the Otter Creek development that for the sake of its shareholders and creditors Arch Coal shouldn’t walk away from,” he said.
Tubbs isn’t a bankruptcy court – which I think we can all be grateful for – and unless it is a personal hobby of his study the bankruptcy proceedings of coal companies, he has no idea what is in the best interest of Arch Coal’s shareholders and creditors. Furthermore, Tubbs works for the public. He should be commenting on what is in the best interest of the people in the state of Montana, not Arch Coal.
Tubbs could have commented on some facts about Arch Coal and their bankruptcy. Here are some:
Tubbs seems to be saying that an enormously expensive potential coal mine with a bankrupt owner, no market, no permit and massive local opposition, that is tied to a railroad company who has voluntarily ceased all work on the project, is worth something to someone.
No reasonable person would come to the conclusion that the Otter Creek mine is a sound investment based on, what I like to call, facts.
If Director Tubbs really believes that the Otter Creek coal mine and Tongue River Railroad is a bright spot for Arch Coal’s investors then they are in bigger trouble than anyone thought.
People who need to catch a goat, that’s who. Which, luckily, I can help you with. I’ve exchanged many emails with frustrated goat owners from all over the country who can’t catch their goats.
On the more serious side of things, when I started East of Billings, I wasn’t sure that people would read it. I did it mostly out of frustration. There was so much happening in southeast Montana that wasn’t getting covered by the newspapers and I wanted a better way to communicate with people who live there who wanted to stay informed about the proposed Otter Creek mine and Tongue River Railroad. Occasionally, I’d write about the goats because the goats are fun to write about.
To my surprise people started reading it. In the beginning, I didn’t spend much time on each blog and you can tell by the number of grammatical errors in the early ones. I’ve resisted the urge to go back and rewrite them mostly because I don’t have time. As more of you started to subscribe to and read the blog I felt increasing pressure to be a better writer.
Thank you, I think.
Now, I spend way more time making sure I don’t have grammatical mistakes which still slip by since I don’t have an editor. And sometimes I just don’t give a shit if I start a sentence with “because” or “and” and I’m not supposed to. It never fails that the minute I hit the Publish button, I find some major mistake or I look at what I wrote and see all the unnecessary commas. So if you see mistakes, unless you are offering to be my editor, please be forgiving. I try, I really do.
I’ve had people tell me I swear too much and people tell me that they like it. Those of you who don’t like it can go to hell. Just kidding. But, I use expletives occasionally. I am my father’s daughter. There is nothing to be done about it although I have compromised and toned it down a bit.
A couple hundred of you subscribe to my blog which means every time I post something, you get an email with the blog in the text. I wonder if some of you have been completely taken off guard by the range of topics. I imagine some of you signed up because you wanted to keep up to date on the Otter Creek mine and then you got an email with the subject line Goat Pimp. Or you signed up because you like reading about the goats and end up with an email discussing some boring administrative process concerning an air quality permit.
There have been stretches of time that I post nothing. I’m not very consistent. This is mostly because inspiration has left me or I’m trying to focus on the book I’m writing not because there isn’t anything to write about. There is always something to write about. During those dry spells you stop coming to my site. When I’m posting content frequently, between 400 and 600 of you visit the page per day. The most I have ever had to the site in one day was close to 8,000. I don’t know if that is high or low for a blog like mine but I’m happy with it.
Who are you?
I know some things about you from my fairly elementary understanding of my website stats on Google Analytics, from the emails I get from you and the comments you post.
Most of you live in Montana but I have readers from all over the country and the world depending on the topic. A majority of you get to my site through Facebook. Then, in ascending order, you get here from internet searches, www.milescity.com, Twitter, www.intelligentdiscontent.com, www.lastbestnews.com and www.montanacowgirl.com.
The top search term that gets people to east of Billings is some variation of, “How do I catch a goat.” The amount of you that ask this question to Google is troubling to me. It makes me think that there are a lot of people with goats who maybe shouldn’t have goats. I’m working on a blog right now called, How To Catch A Goat: Redux with more detailed information on how to actually catch a goat; less humor, more direction.
The most odd search term that led a person to my site was “Pimps in Billings, Montana.” I’m certain they weren’t looking for a goat buck to breed their does. There was one search term that should never, ever be repeated involving a goat. It would make you question humanity.
Seventy-eight percent of you are in the United States. The top city of readers is Billings at 9% and then, in ascending order, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, Provo (Who are you folks in Provo?), Miles City, Denver, New York, Glendive, Livingston, Forsyth, Portland, Chicago, Dallas, Ashland, Gillette, San Francisco, Sidney, Nanterre (France), Kalispell, Lame Deer, Colstrip, Butte, Great Falls, Broadus and Ashland. After that, geographical locations just devolve into smaller percentages from cities all over Montana, the rest of the country and the world. Australia is the next country with the highest percentage of readers.
There is a person that reads my posts from The Hague. Whoever you are, get in touch. I want to know why east of Billings is of interest to you.
Fifty percent of you are Mac users.
In terms of political affiliations, as far as I can tell from the emails I’ve received from you, you run the gamut from politically conservative to politically liberal and everywhere in between. I’m hoping that is a reflection of the fact that I criticize both Republicans and Democrats and try not use hyperbole, talking points or political rhetoric in my blogs.
Your favorite posts
The all-time most read blog on the site was about the billionaire Wilks brothers buying a large ranch in southeast Montana and taking it out of block management. People continue to read it every day from all over the country. That particular piece has been read over 17,000 times since I posted it on December of 2014. The next most popular post was about the Northwestern Energy listing Colstrip as a $340 million dollar liability in their books. I find that odd since it was just a summary of a Billings Gazette article stating the same thing. The third most popular post was A Citizen’s Guide to Oil Spills: A message to the residents of Glendive, which I wrote after the January 2015 oil spill on the Yellowstone River.
After that, the goats take over with How to Catch A Goat, Goat Pimp, and Goats Gone Wild. Rounding out the top 10 was the amazing video of southeast Montana put together by photographer and filmmaker Colin Ruggiero, the blog about the charlatans who wanted to build another oil refinery in Billings, my reflections about my father’s death and finally, my thoughts on why Ryan Zinke banned me from his Facebook page and Twitter. You’ll have to read it to find out.
When I write about politics such as the recent blog about Duane Ankney’s, I’m sorry I mean Governor Bullock’s, Clean Power Plan, most of the readers are in Helena, Missoula and Bozeman. When I write about the Otter Creek mine or Tongue River Railroad, most of the readers are from southeast Montana and Helena.
After two years of writing I can say that it takes a lot of time, I’m mostly happy with what I’ve written and I have the best blog followers. You all are respectful, considerate and amazingly supportive of my efforts.
I wouldn’t and couldn’t do it without you. (I also couldn’t do it without Mike, who I run my ideas by and who reads almost everything I write for content and lets me know if I’m way off the mark or if I’m being too sarcastic, which I have a tendency to be.) Sometimes sarcasm is funny and sometimes it is just mean. I don’t want to be mean.
You can follow my photography on Facebook here or on Instagram by searching for alexis_bonogofsky.
My nephew learned the pledge of allegiance when he was four. A dutiful aunt, I listened to him recite it and then heard, “one nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“Can you repeat that please?” I asked.
“One nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I imagined a bronzed dog the size of the Statue of Liberty in the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building.
Of course, I told everyone about it, shared a video of him on Facebook and made him recite it every time I saw him.
His new take on an old pledge faded from memory as he said other funny things, that is, until the day before New Year’s Eve when a friend from Helena lost his dog in downtown Billings.