By Deb Courson Smith Big Sky Connection

BROADUS – The State Land Board will get the final say when it comes to protecting private property, air and water impacted by mining Otter Creek coal tracts, a federal judge has ruled.

Judge Joseph Hegel also ruled that the board did not have to consider environmental impacts of mining the 1.2 billion tons of coal before signing a lease.

It’s about more than taking coal out of the ground, says Broadus-area rancher Walter Archer, because it also has to be shipped–and that means building the Tongue River Railroad to carry 25 coal trains a day over the countryside and through small towns.

“We can hope, I guess, that they will consider all of the environmental effects that opening up this mine will have in southeastern Montana – air, water, and everything else.”

Arch Coal already has started clearing land for the project, Archer says, so the Land Board needs to set conditions soon–or it could be too late.

The State Land Board is charged with managing state resources for optimum financial benefit to the state, and the Otter Creek coal project is expected to bring the state millions in the years to come. Archer’s response:

“I understand that, but I also think that there are other things that may be just as important.”

The Northern Plains Resource Council, National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club had taken the State Land Board to court for not assessing environmental impacts before leasing the coal.