Tongue River Railroad construction plagued with further delays

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Steve Smedley

BILLINGS, Mont. – The Surface Transportation Board announced last week it will take until next April to complete its draft analysis of the proposed Tongue River Railroad, the second substantial delay in work originally scheduled for completion last year, the Missoulian newspaper reports.

The $403 million line sponsored by BNSF Railway and Arch Coal would enable access to new mines in the Powder River Basin along the Montana-Wyoming border, while also serving Arch’s proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine, an estimated 1.4 billion-ton reserve of coal that could become the railroad’s main customer.

Board spokesman Dennis Watson says the decision to delay the schedule on the railroad study was made to accommodate the “intense interest” in the project. The additional time will “give everyone a chance to make their views known,” he said.

Environmental pollution restrictions and competition from alternative fuel resources have resulted in coal companies increasing their product shipments to overseas markets in Asia. The quickest route is through the West Coast, however export volumes remain severely constrained by limited port capacity.

Elected officials in Washington and Oregon states and environmentalists have opposed proposals to sharply expand that capacity, and several projects have been scrapped or stalled. That directly impacts projects in the Powder River Basin, including southeastern Montana’s proposed Tongue River Railroad.

BNSF spokesman Matt Jones says the railroad’s sponsors still were targeting completion of the line by the time Arch’s proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine is ready to ship coal. The facility has already fallen more than two years behind its original permitting schedule. Company executives once predicted Otter Creek could open next year. It’s now likely years away given the time it would take to construct the mine.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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