COLSTRIP, Mont. -- Coal's king in this southeast Montana city of 2,000 people.
Four smokestacks tower over the city from coal-burning power plants fueled by the Westmoreland Coal Co.'s Rosebud strip mine that sprawls just a few minutes' drive from the city center.
But King Coal has enemies.
Ranchers -- many with ties to the land that go back generations -- are butting heads with the coal industry over the companies' efforts to boost exports to Asia from the Pacific Northwest. Some ranchers worry expanded mining will poison shallow aquifers in their corner of the Powder River Basin.
"I think the biggest concern is water. It boils down to water," rancher Clint McRae said in a recent interview at his kitchen table. "That's the lifeblood of a ranch."
McRae comes by his opposition to big mining projects from his father, Wally McRae, 77, who's been fighting mines, coal transport projects and the Colstrip generators since they first opened in the 1970s.
One of their biggest worries: coal ash slurry ponds, which Wally McRae and others predicted would leak and ruin water supplies for cattle in an area that only gets, on average, 15 inches of rain per year.
"And it's been leaking ever since," he said of the dumps.
Speaking his mind is what Wally McRae does. He's a renowned cowboy poet and philosopher -- winner of a 1990 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award -- who tells tales about how ranchers and American Indians have coexisted for centuries. There have been McRaes here since Wally's grandfather arrived from Scotland in 1882.
"He was a sheep man, and he needed water for those sheep," he said.
The McRae property is in an area where Army Gen. George Armstrong Custer is said to have camped in 1876. The Battle of Little Big Horn took place not too far away.
Wally McRae, of course, loves to talk about his clashes with King Coal, recalling how experts promised the unlined coal ash ponds wouldn't leak.
"For over 30 years, we have been negotiating what 'completely sealed' means. And it means, it will leak what it will leak," he said. "That's what it means."
The younger McRae said a neighbor saw water where it shouldn't be and a deer refusing to drink it. After testing, he said, the water was shown to be full of contaminants linked to coal ash.
"Push your public relations off to the side," he said of the industry. "This is not working, when it's contaminating water. That's detrimental to agriculture."
The industry, he added, once promised to shift to dry ash storage to protect aquifers. "We're not seeing it," he said.
Wally McRae maintained that water has seeped through former mined sites, picking up pollutants along the way. An attorney for Westmoreland said the issue was not related to its operations.
"Boom, boom, boom -- six cows died" in recent years, said Wally McRae. "So they fenced them out."
In a low, halting tone, he stressed, "This is not the solution to the problem."
Industry touts 'reclamation successes'
The McRaes' most recent and high-profile battle is against the so-called Tongue River Railroad and Arch Coal Inc.'s Otter Creek mine.
The fight has raged for decades in one way or another. The railroad, its foes say, has gone through different iterations and is planned to serve different purposes.
At one point, they say, it was supposed to provide a shortcut for Gillette, Wyo.-area coal and move along the Tongue River. Now the plan is for the railroad to take an alternative route, connecting Otter Creek to existing BNSF Railway Co. tracks in Colstrip.
From there, the coal could go west and reach Asian markets through proposed shipping export terminals in Washington state and Oregon.
"We have a private for-profit corporation that has the power of federal eminent domain to condemn my private land, 9 miles of my private land, so they can haul coal to China," Clint McRae said at a recent meeting on coal exports in Seattle to cheers from project opponents.
The mine itself remains in permitting. Earlier this year, almost 200 members of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, just south of the McRae property, asked the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to scrutinize Arch's request.
On the rail proposal, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said last year the federal Surface Transportation Board had failed to carry out the required "hard look" at environmental issues related to the project.
In January, STB said it was moving forward with fresh scrutiny on the revised, shorter 42-mile path to minimize environmental impacts. Draft reviews may not be ready until next year.
Clint McRae wants public scoping on the new route. "This is the preferred alternative of the railroad, and they chose this route after the scoping comment deadline on the original 89 miles -- from Ashland to Miles City -- had closed," he wrote in a follow-up email.
Many Colstrip residents are looking forward to the project for its economic development potential. Coal is by far Colstrip and Rosebud County's top employer.
Colstrip itself developed as a result the Northern Pacific Railway's need for coal. Construction of the power plant revived the area's mining industry after locomotives switched to diesel in the 1950s.
PPL Corp. -- the plant's owner -- often touts a 2010 report showing that the plant helps support several thousand jobs and helps pump in hundreds of millions of dollars to the area's economy.
"The fundamental conclusion of this study is that the contribution that has been made, and continues to be made, by the generating facility in Colstrip, Montana is larger than many Montanans may realize," the paper said.
Bud Clinch, executive director of the Montana Coal Council, has defended his industry's environmental practices against the McRaes and other foes many times. He said the industry will return the land to pre-mining conditions.
"The reclamation issue is really a nonstarter," he said in an interview. "While people may throw that out there, it really is not an issue. Reclamation successes are unprecedented."
Clinch said he also understands that landowners like the McRaes are upset about their property being affected by mining or transport, especially if the coal is going overseas.
"The issue has probably become more exacerbated when the anticipated or speculated end market for coal is an export country. Quite frankly, I can understand how landowners are at odds with that," he said.
"I don't know if in reality, if that coal was going to a power plant in Bismarck, N.D., if people would be content with that."
'We've had enough!'
Clint McRae maintains environmental abuses are the main issue, not exports.
"For 30 years, we have seen these companies protest their taxes, they've contaminated our groundwater, they've ignored the law, the state has allowed them to get away with it, and we are drawing a line to say this is enough," he said.
He added, "And that's how we feel about Otter Creek and this railroad. We've had enough!"
Another rancher, Ellen Pfister, whose property is in the Bull Mountains north of Billings, has long fought Signal Peak Energy LLC's underground mine.
Signal Peak uses longwall machines to extract coal, allowing more efficient mining but causing subsidences.
Rumbling through her property in a large pickup truck, Pfister points at scars on the mountain she says were caused by longwall mining. She would think twice before riding a horse through some of these parts, she said.
Pfister stays in contact with mine managers. After all, workers often move across her land. It's a sometimes tense relationship.
Even though Montana has about a quarter of the nation's recoverable coal reserves, Wyoming remains the nation's top mining state. Conditions related to markets, geography and regulatory climate means Big Sky country is not likely to see a big mining rush.
"Not until Wyoming gets rid of the easy stuff," Pfister said.
Her big concern is the potential for Signal Peak to expand operations and begin strip mining near her property.
"I am very worried," she said.
The ranchers don't always see eye to eye with environmental groups. While greens may want to get rid of coal, many ranchers are first looking to protect their property and livelihoods.
Ranchers are also independent types who don't always agree with each other.
"Most of them don't care" until it's in their backyard, Pfister said of people who are indifferent to the debate.
After decades of fighting, Wally McRae is wondering how things will end up.
"I'm tired. I've been fighting this thing for 30, 35, 40 years. I'm old," he said. "My ability to help Clint on the ranch is diminishing every day."
He recounted a talk he had with an attorney involved in the coal debate.
"I think what I should do is involve myself in civil disobedience. And go to jail," he said he told the attorney. "Jail food is not very good. I'll learn to sit in a yoga position like Mahatma Gandhi. And I'll wrap myself in a white robe and I can become a martyr."
The attorney, the burly McRae recalled, delivered the punch line: "She said, 'You look more like Buddha.'"
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