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 activity 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 on average 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.
In this Nov. 9, 2010 photo, a mine employee stands in the entry of the Signal Peak Energy's Bull Mountain mine in Roundup, Mont. Bull Mountain and other export mines in Wyoming and Montana represent a bet that overseas sales could reverse the U.S. coal industry's downward spiral.
Pfister's biggest worry is that mining could permanently damage her water supplies - a crucial necessity on a ranch set in an arid landscape of sandstone, sage brush and ponderosa pine trees stunted by periodic drought.
"I'm trying to figure out how to protect myself," said Pfister. "If you don't have water, you have to go someplace else."
U.S. 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 as the industry moves aggressively to build and expand coal ports on the West Coast and Gulf of Mexico.
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's long feared are here.
Trucks rumble along access roads to the mine carved into the rocky coulees that lace through the ranch, which Pfister inherited from her mother and runs with husband, Don Golder. Giant fissures have appeared where portions of the mine collapsed after coal was removed. About ten 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 for her trouble. Pfister said she's 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. She worried miners could get killed otherwise, she said.
Signal Peak president John DeMichiei said the company will address any concerns raised by Pfister, but has to access the mine through her property to deal with unexpected events such as the high carbon monoxide levels.
The mine also has pledged to provide water to Pfister if her springs run dry. Pfister said that could end up cancelling her legal rights to those springs in the future, making her forever dependent on the mine.