Court orders new environmental review for Tongue River Railroad

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PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal appeals court has overturned part of the Surface Transportation Board’s approval of a planned coal-hauling railroad in Montana. The board must now reconsider its construction permits for two pieces of the Tongue River Railroad and include possible environmental impacts it didn’t consider the first time around.
 
The 30-year-old Tongue River Railroad proposes to tie nascent coal mines in the Otter Creek tracts near Ashland, Mont., to the BNSF Railway interchange at Miles City, Mont. It’s also proposed to run southward to connect to another BNSF line near Decker, Mont., though a deal with a wealthy landowner suggests the southern portion of the line may be canceled. The entire proposed route is roughly 130 miles long.
 
Challenging the board’s approval were the Northern Plains Resource Council; the city of Forsyth, Mont.; the United Transportation Union; and Mark Fix, a private individual. Native Action Inc. intervened on their behalf.
 
The challengers first asked the STB directly to reconsider its decision. But last June, the STB said it had considered all reasonable objections, and upheld its decision. That led the resource council and its allies to challenge the decision at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
 
The court ruled that the board didn’t conduct a deep enough investigation into potential environmental impacts. Specifically, it said the board should have considered the impacts of the railroad in the context of other development currently under way in the area, such as planned coalbed methane extraction.
 
The railroad “is not operating in a vacuum,” the court ruled, noting detailed studies of coalbed methane developments planned for the area. “[I]n this case, an adequate cumulative impact analysis necessarily requires that such information be included.”
 
Further, the court ruled the board would need to consider environmental impacts from the coal mines that the railroad would enable to open and prosper.
 
The board must now conduct a new environmental impact statement, a process that can take a year or more.


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