Federal Surface Transportation Board sends “coal to China” railroad back to square one
By Northern Plains Resource Council
BILLINGS, Mont. – The Surface Transportation Board on Monday announced the controversial Tongue River Railroad (TRR) must reapply for a permit to haul coal from the isolated Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana by rail and to eventual markets in China and other Asian countries.
Last December, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled, in a case filed by the Northern Plains Resource Council and Native Action, that the environmental impact statement for the Tongue River Railroad fell short of the law’s requirements, partly because much of the field data was decades old, and partly because much field data had simply never been gathered.
Because of this court decision, and the numerous changes in the railroad’s proposals, the STB has decided to clarify the proposal before it by requiring the TRR to submit a revised application.
“My ranch would be cut in half by the proposed Tongue River Railroad,” said Mark Fix, a Tongue River rancher and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. “We can only hope that, for the first time in more than 30 years, the Surface Transportation Board will ask some tough questions about whether this railroad will benefit anyone besides Arch Coal and the Chinese industrialists who will burn that coal.”
Landowners facing condemnation along the TRR’s 89-mile route have fought the plan for years, arguing that they would be forced to bear a tremendous cost for the benefit of coal and railroad companies and Asian economies that kill American jobs.
“What we have done is won a voice for Montanans,” said Walter Archer, a Powder River County rancher and Chair of Northern Plains, “We can express our concerns about the affects industrializing southeastern Montana will have on agriculture and tourism – our two mainstays in the economy that seem to always get overlooked by those is search of economic development.”
Tongue River rancher Jeanie Alderson added, “We finally have a chance to ask whether it’s really in America’s interest to ruin good ranchland to build a railroad that will ship coal to China so we can stoke their economic engine.”
The proposed railroad has undergone numerous changes since being proposed in 1980. Those changes have become intertwined in several court cases and changes of plans by the railroad’s promoters. It was originally intended to serve a speculative coal mine in the Ashland area. When that mine never came to be, TRR’s promoters announced a new proposal to haul coal from Wyoming to the main rail line in Montana. Years passed and the railroad was never built.
With the plans of St. Louis-based Arch Coal for building Montana’s largest-ever coal mine on Otter Creek southeast of Ashland, the Tongue River Railroad took on a new form. The Wyoming connection was dropped because candy magnate Forrest Mars bought one-third interest in the TRR and managed to get that portion dropped so the railroad wouldn’t cut through his sprawling ranch in part of Big Horn County. The TRR would now become the first leg in transporting coal from Montana to China and other Asian nations.
Northern Plains if a family agriculture group that since 1972 has organized Montana citizens to protect water quality, family farms and ranches, and unique quality of life.