A group of people charged with trespassing in August during protests related to coal development filled a Helena courtroom Wednesday afternoon, asking a judge for jury trials in the matter.
Over five days in August, 23 people affiliated with the Missoula-based Blue Skies Campaign were arrested for occupying the Capitol building after hours. They had sought to prevent the state Land Board from allowing Signal Peak Energy to expand its underground mine south of Roundup, but the Land Board rescheduled its action ahead of the weeklong protests and set up a 30-day comment period on the $3.6 million bid.
“I hope everybody in Montana will consider getting arrested for this,” said Rick Bass, author of more than 20 books, most touching on land and environmental topics. “‘Arrest’ is a good word. When you’re sliding down a slope, you arrest yourself and you don’t take others down with you.”
Bass was among 16 people arrested who asked Municipal Judge Bob Wood for a jury trial Wednesday.
Seven others are seeking plea agreements.
Larry Hildes, a lawyer for the protesters, told the judge the group would rely on a “necessity” defense — a common-law principle that a crime is permissible if it is necessary to prevent a greater harm — and on a free-speech argument.
Wood did not set trial dates for the 16 defendants.
Before the hearing, about 25 people held a rally in Constitution Park on Last Chance Gulch in protest of the extensive coal development proposed in Montana with most of the coal planned for export to Asia.
Bass lives in the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana, and pointed to the asbestos contamination in Libby as the kind of unforeseen consequence that results from decisions made without proper foresight.
Like some others in the group, Bass said his purpose was not to end all coal production. But sensitive areas like the Tongue River Valley, slated for possible major coal expansion and development of a railroad, need to have a more complete discussion.
“Ranchers from that small area should have a voice in what’s going on,” he said. “They should be part of whatever solution comes out of this. I’m sure there are 100 different solutions other than digging up the valley and putting the railroad through. I don’t see the solution being an ‘either/or’ or an absolute, but there needs to be a discussion instead of just this one plan.”
At the rally, the group held signs reading “‘Clean’ coal causes cancer,” “All coal is filthy” and “Keep coal in the ground,” among other messages.
Some at the rally said that Montana was leasing away its coal at rates well below market value. Until technologies exist to burn it more cleanly, it should stay in the ground, said Corey Bressler of Missoula, one of the defendants.
Lowell Chandler, an organizer of the group, said its protests are part of a broader strategy to end all coal exports.
“From mining to transport to combustion, coal is dirty. Whether it’s diesel emissions from mining and transport, the coal dust or the combustion, coal kills people and our planet so that greedy CEOs can continue to steal away our future and our health for their profits,” he said to the group. “As a Montanan, I refuse to sacrifice our health, our land, our water, our private property rights, our economic vitality and our pride to become a coal colony.”
Other speakers said Montana’s coal excise tax is among the lowest in the nation, and that politicians were being “bullied” by coal companies to provide inexpensive leases.
The rally came as Gov. Brian Schweitzer, an outspoken advocate of coal production and its economic benefits to the state, prepares to leave office.
Fellow Democrat Steve Bullock takes that office in January and with it the chairmanship of the Land Board, which approves coal leases on state lands. Revenue from those lands is dedicated to public schools.
Bullock, who has had a seat on the Land Board as attorney general, voted against the lease of the Otter Creek tract in the Tongue River Basin south of Miles City to Arch Coal in 2010, saying he thought the state should have received a better price on the deal.
He has since said he would stand by the lease, and defended the Land Board in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor the Land Board in late October, preserving the lease, but more permitting remains.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality told Arch Coal subsidiary Otter Creek Coal Oct. 15 that its mining application was not complete. The DEQ will continue its review when the application is complete.
In September, the Land Board unanimously approved the expansion of Signal Peak Coal. Signal Peak already employs about 250 people and will pay $3.6 million upfront for the state-owned coal, plus fees royalties expected by the state to total $15 million over the life of the mine.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/IR_SanjayT