Montana Ranchers Worry Proposed New Rail Line Route Will Expedite Export of Coal to Asia

Colstrip, MT-area rancher Clint McRae

(Billings, MT – YPR) – Even in the wide open plains of Southeastern Montana, there's not enough land to go around, not when the rights of local ranchers clash with global energy ambitions of a coal mining company.

A proposed rail route is becoming the fault line in the dispute. It could run right through Clint McRae's property, and he doesn't like it.

The new preferred route for the long-stalled Tongue River Railroad (TRR) project will interrupt cattle operations so private companies can export more coal to Asia, says McRae, a rancher who has emerged as a designated spokesman for several area landowners who oppose the rail project.

“We have a situation where a private, for-profit corporation has the power to use eminent domain – federal eminent domain – to condemn my private land so we can export coal to China. I have a huge problem with this,” he says.

The main purpose of the rail line is to serve the proposed Otter Creek Coal tracts in southeastern Montana. The area is located in a coal-rich area known as the Powder River Basin (PRB). The mine is currently undergoing the permitting process. Proponents of the new rail line have filed an updated route proposal with the Federal Surface Transportation Board.

The route, known as the Colstrip Alignment, came as a surprise to McRae who ranches south of Colstrip, MT. He says this new proposed route wasn’t identified at the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Scoping meetings held across Southeastern Montana in November.

“The issue that we had then is that the maps were so lousy we could not tell exactly where it (the rail line) went,” McRae says.

He says that according to the map of the new proposed route, the TRR rail line will go across nine miles of his land and disrupt his ability to move cattle between pastures. McRae says his Amish neighbors told him they're worried they won't have a rail crossing that can accommodate horse-drawn buggies.

The long-stalled TRR project is now owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company (BNSF), Arch Coal Incorporated, and billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg says the new preferred route has less of an impact. "Well, this Colstrip route affects fewer landowners,” she says. “It also doesn’t require a new crossing of I-94. And the alignment in the Tongue River Valley went from 68 miles to 8.5 miles.”

Lundsberg says the new route is possible because advances in rail technology. She says the Colstrip Alignment has a steeper grade than the route originally identified, but operationally it is more attractive.

“First of all we’re reducing the route from 83 miles to 42 miles,” She says. “And we’re still able to keep the same train size and locomotive configuration on the Colstrip route.”

In announcing the acquisition of the Otter Creek Coal tracts, St. Louis-based Arch Coal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steven F. Leer said, “…We believe these Northern PRB reserves will help us competitively serve U.S. power producers, supply additional coal for export to emerging Asia or possibly house the site of a future coal-conversion facility.”

In addition to his objection as landowner, Clint McRae is a member of the Montana-based conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council. McRae is calling on the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to hold additional hearings in Montana on this new TRRC Supplemental Application.

He says, “I think it’s extremely underhanded for the Burlington Northern railroad to pull this kinda thing. They could have done this around Thanksgiving and they chose to wait until the 11th hour to spring it on us. I think that is unconscionable.”

BNSF’s Suann Lundsberg says she has not heard whether the STB will hold additional public meetings. “The public process is a process the STB goes through to set the scope. We were continuing to do our engineering work that we needed to do regardless. So this just happened to be something we said, ‘You know this looks like a better route for us.’”

The STB extended the deadline for filing comments on the Draft Scope of Study for the TRR Environmental Impact Statement until January 11, 2013. A call to the STB about whether additional public hearings will be held was not immediately returned.

Map of the proposed Tongue River Railroad Colstrip Alignment