After hearing from 46 speakers, the Helena City Commission voted 3-2 Monday night to send a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, asking it to consider potential impacts on Helena during an environmental review of proposed coal ports on the West Coast.

But in the view of Commissioner Dick Thweatt, who voted to send the letter, the issue had become “bit of a tempest in a teapot.”

“I don’t think this letter will have any effect one way or another on how the Corps complies with the National Environment Policy Act,” he said at the start of the hearing, which lasted nearly two hours. “Agencies preparing environmental reviews under NEPA want to hear from people who may be affected by a proposed action. They want to get all the issues on the table at the beginning of the analysis so they won’t come out of the woodwork later.”

The letter arose following proposals for major new ports on the coast to facilitate the export of coal from Wyoming and eastern Montana to growing Asian markets, and concerns that the resulting increase in coal traffic would have adverse effects on local health and commerce. The Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to approve the ports.

Several employees of Montana Rail Link, as well as representatives of labor unions and companies that work closely with MRL, spoke of the high-paying jobs that both the rail and coal industries bring and the taxes they pay. Some said the city was being used as a political pawn by out-of-state interests that seek to end coal mining entirely.

Several supporters of sending the letter said MRL has been a good neighbor, but that they wanted local effects of increased traffic identified early so that mitigations could be found.

And representatives of MRL itself agreed with Mayor Jim Smith and Commissioner Dan Ellison — who both voted against sending the letter — that it was being sent to the wrong entity.

“That letter I would recommend be addressed to Tom Walsh, president of Montana Rail Link, and allow us to help do the right thing,” said Lynda Frost, a spokeswoman for MRL. “That’s a Montana company working with Montana people to address the issues.

Another MRL representative said current infrastructure would not even allow the kind of increase some have predicted from the increased exports.

Still, skeptics of the coal trains said the letter would bring a needed third-party review of local impacts, include the potential need for local infrastructure upgrades such as overpasses or safety improvements,  and that without such a letter, Helena would lose its chance to take part in the discussion.

“This stuff is expensive. And it’s really lovely that the rail companies would like to sit down and say, ‘Yes, we’re interested in meeting you halfway,’” said Kate French of the Sleeping Giant Citizens Council, the local affiliate of Northern Plains Resource Council. “But without a third-party neutral analysis and a full environmental review of the necessary infrastructure upgrades, how are we going to come up with that number?”

She denied that the letter amounted to a “jobs killer.”

“Let’s just make sure it’s safe for our citizens,” she said. “Let’s make sure it doesn’t ruin our city in the meantime.”

Several opponents of the letter said the concerns were overblown, or spoke of a “war on coal.”

“If it didn’t have the word coal in here, if it had grain, would we be here?” asked Carl Schweitzer of Helena.

As for the noise, Schweitzer said he just moved closer to the tracks.

“I like to hear the train,” he said. “It tells me that somebody’s working; there is commerce in Montana.”

After hearing from the public, the commission rejected, in a pair of 3-2 votes, amendments by Ellison. One would have eliminated reference to train noise; the other would have redirected the letter to Montana Rail Link, Burling Northern Santa Fe, the Montana congressional delegation and the Montana Department of Transportation — entities that might have a more direct role in mitigating the impacts — instead of the Corps.

“The letter asks the Army Corps of Engineers to do something they’re already doing,” he said. “For that reason alone, I think we’re heading down the wrong path.”

“If the goal here is to stop or significantly delay coal development and coal mining in eastern Montana, then I guess we ought to send this latter off to the Army Corps,” said Smith.

Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath said she was not anti-MRL or anti-union, but disagreed with Smith and Ellison, saying removing the Corps as a recipient would “gut” the letter. The railways and others were still going to receive a copy of the letter in any case.

“Our request is to look at the effects on Helena, and (the Corps is) not already doing this,” she said. “By sending the letter to (the Corps), we are going to get more attention shone on these problems.”

Commissioner Matt Elsaesser, who last week visited a large coal mine in Wyoming and areas slated for potential coal development, agreed that MRL has been a good neighbor, particularly regarding the development of the Centennial Trail, which would connect Helena and East Helena in part by using MRL rights-of-way. He voted for sending the letter and against the amendment to redirect it to the rail companies.

Patrick Hartwig of East Helena said he was probably the only coal miner in the room, having worked in the eastern Montana mines.

“We need to work with the railroad, rather than petitioning the Army Corps of Engineers, which didn’t do so good down in New Orleans,” he said.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or sanjay.talwani@helenair.com or

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