New GAO study looks at impacts of greater freight train traffic

A new report released Sept. 26 by the Government Accountability Office found that increasing freight train traffic, including oil and coal traffic, “may exacerbate congestion in communities” and that those communities have little, if any, resources to respond.

The report, “Freight Transportation: Developing National Strategy Would Benefit from Added Focus on Community Congestion Impacts,” recommends clarification of the purpose of the primary freight network and the role of the federal government in dealing with local freight train congestion.

Beth Kaeding, Past Chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council from Bozeman, Mont., issued the following statement on behalf of WORC and Northern Plains:

“The report spells out in great detail that there is, unfortunately, little or no help for local governments and taxpayers confronting massive infrastructure needs. The big question remains unanswered, and that is who should pay for the costly impacts of oil-by-rail and coal exports. Under the status quo, it falls on the local taxpayer. Citizens need to ask their local elected leaders to insist on accountability from profitable coal and oil interests.”

Groups urge reforms of Beef Checkoff Program

WORC presses USDA to address conflicts of interest in the Beef Checkoff Program in letter with other groups to Secretary Vilsack.

Broad coalition calls for a new model of trade

WORC and the member groups joined with nearly 600 organizations to send a letter to Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) firmly rejecting fast-track trade promotion authority and calling for a new system for negotiating and implementing trade agreements.

In the letter, the diverse coalition stated that fast track, an outdated mechanism that would limit Congressional and public oversight over trade negotiations, is “simply not appropriate” given the broad subjects covered by today’s trade pacts, such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

The letter calls for a new model of trade authority that includes a Congressional role in selecting trade partners, a set of mandatory negotiating objectives, enhanced transparency, Congressional certification that negotiating objectives have been met before trade negotiations can conclude, and more.

  • Read letter to Senator Wyden
Oregon agency denies crucial Port of Morrow permit, deals significant blow to coal export proposals

Coal train photo by Paul Anderson.Oregon’s Department of State Lands denied a crucial removal-fill permit for a proposed coal terminal at the Port of Morrow in Oregon on August 18. The state agency posted the denial in a fact sheet posted online.

The denial is a devastating blow to the facility, which, if permitted, would export 8.8 million tons of coal per year from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and southeastern Montana to Asian markets. Coal export critics from mining, rail, and port-impacted communities celebrated.

“Governor Kitzhaber and his Department of State Lands stood up for dozens of communities along the railroad tracks from Wyoming to Oregon today,” said Billings pulmonologist Dr. Robert Merchant. “Shipping export-bound coal through towns like mine has significant health impacts ranging from increased problems with asthma and COPD to increased heart attacks and strokes.”

The negative health impacts caused by diesel fumes and coal dust from coal trains, as well as global mercury and carbon pollution from Asian coal combustion were major concerns for many critics. Another concern at least partially alleviated by the permit denial deals with rail congestion.

“Port of Morrow would have directly hurt Montana's number one industry: agriculture. As a grower of wheat, barley, and pulse crops, I've seen firsthand how coal export leads to rail congestion and prevents Montana grain from getting to market efficiently and timely,” said farmer and Northern Plains Resource Council member Arlo Skari, who farms outside of Chester, Montana. “Port of Morrow would have further restricted our ability to sell our product. The project's permit denial is a win for farmers and for landowners’ property rights who live along the railroad tracks across the region.”

Increased traffic from coal and oil trains has caused significant service delays for rail shippers. Lack of rail services caused by fossil fuel traffic recently caused the closure of an agricultural shipping business in Central Washington serving markets in the Midwest. In Montana a rural grain elevator has been threatened with loss of service, and in North Dakota farmers posted over $66 million in lost revenues due to shipping delays, according to a May 2014 North Dakota State University study.

“Hats off to Governor Kitzhaber for considering all the consequences of shipping our coal to Asia,” said Montana State Representative Tom Steenberg. “These include the negative effects of global warming as well as increased health care costs, especially for those of us with respiratory problems. What used to be promoted as ‘energy independence’ for all of us now just boils down to providing cheap power to Asia at our expense. Doesn’t look like a good deal to me.”

There are two other proposed coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest, at Longview and Cherry Point in Washington state. Both face heavy community opposition. (Photo by Paul Anderson)

Groups ask for public participation and reclamation review of coal mine expansion

Two Billings-based citizen groups filed a lawsuit August 14 to require a hard look at reclamation before any expansion of the Spring Creek coal mine in southeastern Montana.

Northern Plains Resource Council and WORC filed an appeal in federal district court in Billings to overturn the Department of Interior’s approval of expanded mining of federally owned coal at the mine owned by Cloud Peak Energy.

The groups argue that the Department of Interior did not properly consider Cloud Peak’s failure to reclaim most of its existing mine site. Interior also did not seek public comment through an environmental review, which is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The groups contend that Interior’s Office of Surface Mining is obligated to seek public comment and conduct an environmental analysis that includes the status of reclamation when it authorizes significant new mining of federally owned coal.

“Not one acre of land at this mine, which has been in operation since the early 1980s, has been fully and permanently reclaimed to meet the standards of the law,” said Bull Mountain rancher and Northern Plains Resource Council Chair Steve Charter. “The OSM is obligated to open significant decisions like this to public comment and to accurately weigh the impacts of their permitting decisions. At the very least, they should be considering Cloud Peak’s failure to reclaim.”

Only 15% of the disturbed land at Spring Creek Mine has met even limited Montana bond release standards for regrading and replanting reclaimed land. None of this reclamation has received bond release that would indicate that viable plant communities have been established at the site.

Much, if not all, of the expanded coal mining sought by Cloud Peak is believed to be intended for export to Asia. Mine owner Cloud Peak Energy recently made a deal to export an additional two million tons of coal to Asia through a port in Vancouver, B.C.

Global Weirding

“Global Weirding.” That’s what rancher Mark Fix calls the tornado, storms, and wildfires that have plagued his ranch near Miles City, Montana recently. Mark was in Denver yesterday to tell the Environmental Protection Agency what he thinks about its Clean Power Plan to control carbon pollution from power plants.

Joining Mark, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, in Denver were Rein van West with the Western Colorado Congress and Shannon Anderson and Deb Theriault with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

They told EPA, in person, to

  • Adopt strong carbon pollution standards.
  • Propose tough standards to reduce venting and leaking of methane, an even more harmful greenhouse gas.
  • Set more ambitious goals to switch from carbon-spewing fossil fuels to energy efficient and clean, renewable sources of energy.

You can support Mark, Rein, Shannon, and Deb — and action to stop global weirding — by sending your comments today. Let’s make sure EPA gets the message! Go to WORC's Action Page.

Unfair pricing practices fuel coal exports, shortchange the American public

Despite explosive growth in U.S. coal exports in recent years, and mounting evidence that coal companies plan for even faster export growth, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ignores exports when setting the selling price of publicly owned coal, according to a new report by Sightline Institute, produced in collaboration with WORC, Northern Plains Resource Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, and WildEarth Guardians.

The report, “Unfair Market Value: By Ignoring Exports, BLM Underprices Federal Coal,” documents how coal companies operating in the Western United States have bought federally owned coal for pennies per ton, and are now reselling that coal on international markets for hundreds of times more than they bought it for. The report argues that BLM has consistently sold publicly owned coal to private coal companies at unreasonably low prices—thereby boosting profits for the coal industry while shortchanging the American public by millions of dollars per year.

Employment opportunities in the WORC network
WORC announces transition of Executive Director Patrick Sweeney

WORC announced today that Patrick Sweeney will transition from his position as the organization’s Executive Director on January 1, 2015 and phase out his employment at WORC over three years.

Sweeney will serve as a part-time senior advisor and focus on special projects, WORC’s civic engagement and voter participation programs and consulting on fundraising with the new executive director, the directors of the seven member organizations, and WORC’s development staff.

At its June Board meeting, WORC’s Board of Directors adopted a leadership transition plan that names John Smillie as the new Executive Director effective January 1, 2015. Smillie currently serves as WORC’s Campaign Director. A graduate of Stanford University, Smillie was an organizer and research coordinator for the Northern Plains from 1979 to 1986 and has been with WORC since 1986.

The Board promoted Kevin Williams to be Director of Organizing and Campaigns, also effective January 1, 2015. Williams earned a Master of Science Degree in Forest Resources from the University of Idaho. Williams joined the WORC staff in 1995 and is currently WORC’s Organizing Director. From 1984 to 1994, he served on the staff of the Western Colorado Congress, the last eight years as Staff Director. Western Colorado Congress, also one of WORC’s member groups, is an alliance for community action empowering people to protect and enhance their quality of life.

Read news release.

Advanced organizing & leadership training in September

Build a strong organization and winning issue campaigns. Sign up for WORC's Advanced Community Organizing and Leadership Training, designed to increase knowledge and skills of experienced grassroots leaders and organizers.

Apply today.

Clean up methane emissions

Urge the Environmental Protection Agency to propose standards to cut methane emissions from oil and gas production — the second largest contributor to climate change.

Pound for pound, methane traps even more heat than carbon pollution, and the oil and gas industry is the nation’s biggest methane polluter.

Go to WORC's Action Page.

Voices from the Bakken - Fighting Back

A snapshot of residents defending their water, land, communities, and families from the harmful effects of booming oil drilling in the Bakken region of northwest North Dakota.

Hydraulic Fracturing Photos

John Fenton and his
neigbors deal with the impacts of gas
drilling and hydraulic fracturing daily.
Click on Learn More to
view photographs.
 
 

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Who's Your Farmer?

Powder River member Audrey Malan gives thanks for local food and local producers in a High Plains News radio commentary.
 
 

 

Member Group News

South Dakota groups form alliance against – Dakota Rural Action joins the No KXL Dakota coalition. (Associated Press in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, August 20, 2014)

Oregon agency rejects coal terminal on Columbia – Northern Plains member says decision is a victory for Montana growers. (Associated Press and Great Falls Tribune, August 18, 2014)

Malone: We need oil, gas well bonding reform now – An op-ed by the Chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council urges changes to reclaim more than 1,500 coalbed methane wells. (Casper Star-Tribune, August 17, 2014)

More Member Group News

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