When the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) tried to mute public opposition to the proposed Otter Creek coal mine in southeastern Montana, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and members of the Northern Cheyenne Nation called them on their tactics and made their voices heard.
The Otter Creek coal tracts, below, contain approximately 1.3 billion tons of coal that, once strip-mined and burned, would emit roughly 2.4 billion tons of climate-disrupting pollution into the atmosphere. Otter Creek Coal, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, has leased 616 million tons of that coal from the State of Montana.
Photo by Kestrel Aerial Services, courtesy of the Montana Environmental Information Center
The DEQ set up a "scoping hearing" in Lame Deer, Montana—home of the Northern Cheyenne tribal headquarters—to accept public comments on the Otter Creek project. But instead of allowing people to stand up and speak in public, DEQ set up an "open house" which provided information but effectively kept public comments off the record.
"The open house format features a lot of different tables where people can mill around," says Montana-based Sierra Club organizer Mike Scott. "But if people want to comment they have to go sit down with someone from DEQ instead of being heard by the public. When people get up and speak in public, it's a totally different dynamic—it can make others think about the situation differently. The open house format was a way for DEQ to make sure they were controlling all the information."
That's Scott, below at left, with Northern Cheyenne activists Martin Braided Hair and Tom Mexican Cheyenne.
The scoping hearing in Lame Deer was one of several on the Otter Creek project, all held in communities near the proposed mine, so the Sierra Club, NWF, and Northern Cheyenne knew about DEQ's open house tactic in advance. "We were able to organize the group together pretty quickly and develop a plan," Scott says.
We'll let Scott describe what ensured: