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The case for coal trains you haven’t heard: The Crow Indian Tribe


You’ve probably heard all the arguments against the proposed expansion of coal production. Dozens more traffic-stopping trains on the rails across Puget Sound. The potential environmental impact.

On the other side, the industry is touting the economic benefits of expansion and the jobs it would create in Washington.

But there’s one side of this issue you haven’t heard. It’s the story of 13,000 people in Southeast Montana who are relying on this coal to survive.

Unemployment in Crow Agency, Montana, is 47 percent. It’s common for four or five families to live in the same small home. The prospects for a good life there are limited.

“We don’t have adequate health care. We don’t have homes in abundance. We don’t have jobs in abundance – so, what’s the alternative for me? How do they want me to survive?” asks Chairman of the Crow Indian Tribe, Darrin Old Coyote.

The Crow Indian Tribe has relied on the nearby coal mine for 40 years as its only source of income, beside the small subsidies given to it by the government.

“A lot of people will look at [coal] as a bad, four-letter word,” says Old Coyote. “But for the Crow people it’s basically our bread and butter.”

Without the coal revenue, Chairman Old Coyote says unemployment would likely hit 80-percent, and his tribe would be decimated.

Putting up a casino won’t help his tribe. There’s no one around to use it. His town is 60 miles away from Billings, in the middle of nowhere.

The Crow Tribe is sitting on 9 billion tons of coal. Expanding its mining and exports to coal-hungry Asia, Old Coyote says, is his only option.

He says he understands the environmental concerns of burning coal, like carbon emissions, but he says his tribe is using new mining and reclamation technology to cut down on those problems. He says he understands the inconvenience extra coal trains running to proposed terminals in Bellingham and Longview would create.

But this coal is his people’s lifeline. “I don’t know if any of those environmentalists have ever been to a coal mine. They talk about coal dust, but I’ve been living by a railroad track all my life and I’ve never seen coal dust,” says Old Coyote. “I think it’s all BS. Unless they have true facts and I don’t think they have true facts.”

Old Coyote says the Crow Tribe can barely be heard above the environmentalist opposition, and he just wants his story to be told.

“I think it’s only right to understand where I come from as a tribe, as a nation, because I understand where they’re coming from and a lot of the things they’re saying – a lot of it isn’t true.”

The Department of Ecology announced in July that it is going to complete a massive environmental review of expanding coal operations and expanding coal trains in the West. It likely won’t be completed for two years.

The proposed terminal in Bellingham would export up to 48 million tons of coal each year. It would put more long coal trains through the Central Puget Sound each day.

And it’s not just environmental groups and politicians against it. Just this week, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe came out against coal expansion, worried it would hurt fishing.

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