How long can you go without a cup of coffee? Tea? Red Bull? Do you get headaches if you miss your morning cup of coffee? If so, you are chemically dependent. A chemical dependency can take many forms like drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and in my experience, fossil fuels like coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a whopping 30% of the United States’ energy is produced by coal burning. In Montana, coal has had tremendous success as a global coal exporter and has helped grow small communities where a population dependent industry such as retail would fail.

I recently visited Signal Peak Coal mine and was able to learn about the various processes that go into coal mining. The handful of employees I talked to were more than thankful for the coal company. Signal Peak provides relatively high paying jobs with fair shifts. They even won awards for their outstanding safety record with their last accident occurring five years ago; an employee slipped on ice in the parking lot and twisted a knee, an injury independent of the mining process. College students are also given the opportunity to take summer jobs with lofty wages between semesters.

Following the visit to this mine, I had the honor to stay at St. Benedict’s Church in Roundup, Montana courtesy of the regional Knights of Columbus. The Knights and a small group of the church’s congregation raved of the development that tax revenue from Signal Peak had allowed for: old schools and public infrastructure were rebuilt or restored with the new revenue. These experiences are undoubtedly very important to Montana’s citizens, so, how can coal be a metaphor for drug abuse? Similar to a substance addiction, coal development has an innocent hook, devastating progression, and the chance for recovery that is often ignored.

What would I know about addiction or chemical dependency? I come from a small city in Upstate New York where meth and other hard drugs are prevalent. I constantly see in the news the stories of drug busts, negligent mothers abusing drugs and the most normal people overdosing. I see old friends of mine use tobacco, weed and alcohol to cope with life after high school. These unfortunate occurrences remind me of how the coal industry operates. Initially, coal mining is offered to Montana as a lucrative source of revenue. A few mines pop up and proves that to be true. So, more mines are proposed and built. Hooked. The West has now seen what coal can bring to them: wealth and development. But it’s too good to be true. The side effects of coal development can hurt local communities and property.

One of stops we made was in Shepheard, MT at a ranch owned by Steve Charter. There, I learned of the negative impact of coal exploration. The method used by many mines to attain coal is longwall mining; this process removes vast swaths of coal beneath the ground’s surface causing large scale depressions in the landscape. As the coal is removed, the ground above collapses several feet down resulting in faulting that can harm a ranch’s ability to migrate cattle and farm the land, and severely damage the ability for natural springs and wells to provide water. Moreover, toxic chemical byproducts released by the coal when burned can leach into surrounding water sources. This has not occurred at the Signal Peak mine, though nearby in the above-ground mine called Colstrip, ash holding ponds are actively leaking water with high amounts of boron, arsenic, lead and other toxic substances. Even if properly taken care of, this water has the potential to severely ruin surrounding waterways. To make matters worse, the burning of the coal unlocks ancient carbon deposits resulting in climate change and a degradation of the surrounding air quality.

Coal has similar impacts on the environment that drugs have on the body. Though, it is not too late to change. The Charters are associated with the Northern Plains Resource Council and actively oppose the expansion of coal development. Steve Charter successfully protected the Bull Mountains from some of the expansion of Signal Peak coal mines. Furthermore, he supports renewable energies and the allocation of capital for the retraining of miners to work on solar panels, windmills and other renewable energies. In recent years, the demand for coal power has drastically decreased. States that purchase power from Montana are demanding energy from renewable sources. Even the leading energy producer in Montana, Colstrip is looking to close all four of its units within the next decade. So, the allocation of support and resources to promote coal companies by both the public and national government is supporting a failing industry; in the long run, this would do more harm than good as it inhibits the advancement of renewable technology and further damages the global climate.

Thus, Montana should completely remove itself from the fossil fuel industry, right? Unfortunately, no. Addictions are difficult to get over. In my experience, the more force and pressure an individual experiences, the lower the chance of successful recovery. If this is also true for the conversion of a state or country to renewable energies, then this issue of fossil fuel dependency gains several levels of complexity. If not done correctly, the removal of Montana’s coal industry could result in many individuals without wages or insurance equivocal to those provided by coal companies like Signal Peak. It’s possible that people would have to sell their homes in towns with drastically falling populations and relocate.

As a stark supporter of renewable energy, I believed that we must rapidly end the use of fossil fuels. By spending just one week in Montana, I have learned more than I thought possible and discovered that I have been naive about the truth of the West’s coal dependency. I aim to use the journey ahead of me here in Montana to grow my understanding of how we can end the West’s chemical dependency.

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