STB completes final environmental impact statement for Tongue River Railroad

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WASHINGTON - The Surface Transportation Board announced Friday that it has issued the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed construction of the Tongue River Railroad, Inc.

The Tongue River is the seemingly on-again, off-again coal-hauling railroad proposed for the rugged rangeland along the Montana-Wyoming border. First proposed in 1981, as originally conceived it would have headed south from Miles City to Ashland, Mont., 89 miles, to serve a single coal mine. In 1990-91 TRR went back to the drawing board and returned with a new proposal: building 134 miles of track from Miles City all the way to the Decker/Spring Creek mine area of Montana, just north of the Wyoming border. The additional track could serve up to four coal mines plus potential coal reserves. It would also serve as a shortcut for BNSF, offering that railroad a shorter route for coal trains heading east. The TRR route would give BNSF a straight shot north to Miles City, shaving 130 to 160 miles off shipments to utilities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states.

Similar to the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern and its plans to expand into Wyoming's Powder River Basin, Tongue River has gone through an extensive regulatory permitting process; been forced to overcome opposition from a coalition of environmentalists, American Indians, rail labor, and land owners; prepared detailed environmental impact statements; and faced legal challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. All of this has delayed the project for years.

The company received approval from the STB in 1996 to build its expanded line, including 29 miles along what it terms the "Four Mile Creek" alignment on the southern part of its route. However, Tongue River felt the Four Mile Creek alignment had too many grades and curves, and in April 1998 filed its third STB application, asking for permission to build along what it calls the "western alignment," on the west side of the Tongue River, which would be 12 miles shorter and have lesser grades and curves. The western alignment was approved by the STB, but the completed environmental review covers 17.3 miles of the proposed western alignment along the 41-mile, Ashland-to-Decker, Mont., portion of the line.
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