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My week at the Montana Coal Export Action protest

Three of the Coal Export Action 23 as thy were arrested in August 2012. Photo courtesy of Coal Export Action. 

You already know about the plans to ship coal through your communities and on to China. The Montana coal export activists tried to stop the coal at its sourceto keep it from being mined at all. The action took place during the week of August 13-20 this summer. People came from all over the United StatesWashington and Oregon of course, but also California, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, and the East Coast. They think, as I do, that it is a national issue. Our country, selling the coal that would send out the CO2 to end life on Earth. We stayed in the basement of a local church in Helena.

The Powder River Basin, where the coal is extracted, straddles the Wyoming-Montana divide. It is the largest source of coal in the US, but so far, most of the coal (90%) comes from the Wyoming side. (One of the mines on the Montana side sends electricity to Olympia via long power lines.) The new mines to be opened up in the Otter Creek area would allow Montana to add 20 million tons per year to its coal production, an increase of 50%. This coal would be included in the 140 million tons of coal that producers hope to ship yearly to China and other Asian destinations.

Many Montanans have their eyes on the coal that lies buried in the Powder River Basin. Why should Wyoming reap all the benefit? Because Montana’s coal is less accessible and a railroad is needed.

One is already in the works. At the same time, the environmental group that planned the action this summer is very vocal and active and they see very clearly why we should not to be built.

We were busy that week in Helena. During the day we occupied the Capitol building for teach-ins, song-writing sessions and more. (It’s a beautiful site; see pictures at the website, Every afternoon we went marching. We would stage a die-in at the Bank of America and then take a proposal to the Environmental Quality Division: a counter to Arch Coal’s proposal to leave the coal in the ground.

We visited the Coal Consortium, too. They told us very earnestly that they appreciated our right to express our opinion, but then their voices took on an edgeThis is private property and we want you off! We left, and then reconsidered. We were prepared to give way to police requests, but not Coal Consortium requests. We went back. They called the police. Then we left for good.

But all that was marking time between the real purpose of the action: the arrests. Every day at 6 pm, groups of us refused to exit the capitol. Five, including myself, refused on the first day. It was easyinstead of leaving, we just stood there, and the police politely led us away. Most of us stayed the night in jail, not wanting to pay the $350 bail. Jail was okay too, in fact it easily beat the church basement for comfort. We had showerslights out at 10:00, my bedtime, instead of 12:30 amand a soft mattress. The only downside was the food, which was inedible.

Now we are moving into a more difficult phase, in which we defend our actions in court. Of the twenty-three arrested, eighteen still want to go to trial. There was an Omnibus Hearing in November, at which the judge asked each of us if we wanted a jury trial (we all said yes).

Our lawyers, Larry Hildes and Bob Gentry, are asking for permission to use the Necessity Defense. That is when we say we had no other choice but to break the law; every other avenue was closed. That’s a tough sell in most courts, because it puts the US on trialhow can there be any need so great, any human right so self-evident, and at the same time so unaddressed in normal U.S. procedures, that people have to break the law? It’s almost seditious to think it. We don’t know if it will be allowed, but the judge is considering it. So far so good.

Each of us has to write a statement on what impelled his-or-her disobediencewhat we did, what the government did in response. My statement was a review of the many fronts in our all-out pursuit of energy: Pipeline all but approved, mountaintop removal ongoing, new drilling in the Gulf. In each case, environmental safeguards were brushed away in an expedited process that left no room for citizens to comment or protest.

Expert witnesses have said they would testify, including Daniel Ellsburg, Bill McKibben, Dr. Tom Power (on the real economics of coal), James Hansen, Eric Grimsrud (on climate change), several local people who tried to stop Montana Land Board approval of the deal, and most recently George Lakey.

If we are successful, the courts in Montana will second our statement that coal must be left in the ground. The Obama Administration and Congress may say yes to fossil fuels at any cost, but one court at least will be on record with an opinion that the pursuit of coal is wrong, so wrong that people were justified in disobeying the law. That would be a huge step forward for coal resistance and climate activism in general. The message would apply equally well to the XL Pipeline, tar sands development in Utah, and mountaintop blasting in the Appalachians.

We need about $10,000 to cover attorneys and expert witnesses, plus travel expenses and bail for some of the activists. In my opinion, the lawyers are the most in need of helpwe all have some sort of regular income, however small, which will recover after this expense is paid, but the lawyers’ entire income depends on their being paid.

If you want to help with this effort, go to

Janet Jordan is a resident of Thurston County with ties to the Green Party.

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