On Sunday, 14 people of assorted ages peacefully shut down the main rail line used to transport coal through Montana, by occupying the railroad right-of-way in an attempt to reclaim the space from the coal industry. Employees of Montana Rail Link, the company that owns the tracks, were unwilling to move trains through until all 14 people were removed, meaning no coal trains were able to pass for the duration of the sit-in. The action was a preview of the kind of peaceful resistance state officials should expect if they permit the proposed Otter Creek coal export mine to move forward.
“If they approve this rail line and the development of the Otter Creek mine, I and many other citizens will be ready to put our bodies on the line in order to stop the exportation of coal from Montana,” Lee Metzgar a participant in the sit-in, told the Helena Independent Record. Metzgar is a grandparent and resident of Missoula, MT. “I’m here on behalf of my grandchildren, because if the coal from the Powder River and Otter Creek is burned, then my grandchildren and their grandchildren face a very grim future.”
Sunday’s action was organized by the Blue Skies Campaign, 350 Missoula, and other groups working to protect Montana communities from coal exports. Especially at issue is Arch Coal’s Otter Creek Mine, one of the largest new coal mines proposed in North America. Mining Otter Creek would damage precious aquifers and permanently degrade agricultural land, while open-top trains carrying coal from the mine would pollute towns from Montana to the West Coast. When burned overseas, the coal would add to pollution problems in China and nearby countries, while worsening climate change around the globe. In other words, the Otter Creek Mine is an extraction project with dire international implications.
Though the issues at stake are no laughing matter, the mood at Sunday’s action was cheerful. Before the civil disobedience, some 60 people rallied at Helena’s Hill Park, and then marched to the site of the site of the direct action to cheer on those risking arrest. People seemed happy to be standing up to the coal industry, and relieved to have the opportunity to take action. When the marchers reached the railroad tracks, fourteen stepped past a “No Trespassing” sign on the railroad right-of-way, while the rest of the group watched from nearby.
Most sit-in participants – a group that included 20-somethings, grandparents, and ages in between – were risking arrest for the first time. Though all were prepared to be taken to jail, police made the decision to cite and release all fourteen, instructing them to appear in court the next day.
Sunday’s action represents an escalation in the growing movement to stop Montana coal exports. It’s the second large civil disobedience against coal to take place in Montana in just over a year, following on the heels of last year’s weeklong August sit-in at the Montana Sate Capitol. Though the movement’s first direct action on railroad property is now over, resistance to the coal industry’s dangerous export plans can only be expected to grow. There’s a new kind of movement brewing in Montana – and it won’t stop until our communities are safe from the threat of Big Coal’s export plans.