ROUNDUP, Mont. — The big mining companies first came knocking on Ellen Pfister’s door in the 1970s, ready to tap the huge coal deposits beneath her family’s eastern Montana ranch.
Pfister and others successfully fended them off, and as the coal industry retreated domestically, it appeared their battle might be won. But now, a fast-growing market in exporting coal to Asia has Pfister and other ranchers seeing their long-held fears become reality.
With the once-shuttered Bull Mountain Mine under new ownership, mining beneath Pfister’s 300-head cattle ranch is in full swing, on target to produce more than 9 million tons of coal this year. At least once a day, a coal train more than a mile long pulls out of the mine that sits atop an estimated one billion tons of the fuel. Sixty percent is destined for overseas markets, including Asia.
Pfister’s biggest worry is that mining could permanently damage her water supplies — a crucial necessity on a ranch set in central Montana’s arid landscape.
‘‘I’m trying to figure out how to protect myself,’’ said Pfister. ‘‘If you don’t have water, you have to go someplace else.’’
US coal exports hit their highest level in two decades last year, with 107 million tons of coal sent primarily to Asia and Europe. Some project volumes to double again in the next five years.
Coal’s opponents are waging a political public relations battle to squash the export ambitions, and success for the industry could be undermined if the global energy market wanes. But for Pfister, the changes she has long feared are here.
Trucks rumble along access roads to the mine carved into the rocky coulees that lace through the ranch. Giant fissures have appeared where portions of the mine collapsed after coal was removed. About 10 acres have been cleared for an emergency escape portal for miners and for ventilation equipment.
Mine owner Signal Peak Energy controls the mineral rights under portions of Pfister’s property, and federal law gives the company extraction rights and Pfister little or no compensation. Pfister said she has made other concessions, as well, including easements for the escape portal and installation of a gas pipeline network to clear the mine of dangerous carbon monoxide.
Signal Peak president John DeMichiei said the company will address concerns raised by Pfister, but has to have access the mine through her property.
Lined up against exports are conservation groups and politicians in some cities and states along shipping routes. Beyond the effects of mining, coal trains will cause traffic delays in bigger cities and alter rural communities. And they say pushing more coal onto the international market will boost emissions. of poisonous mercury and climate-changing greenhouse gases.