STB rejects Tongue River Railroad application

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WASHINGTON — A plan to build a 42-mile railroad through southeastern Montana has reached the end of the line.

On Tuesday, the Surface Transportation Board rejected an application by the Tongue River Railroad Company to build a line from Colestrip, Mont., to the proposed Otter Creek Mine near Ashland, Mont. BNSF Railway and Arch Coal jointly sponsored the project that was first proposed in the 1980s but has faced stiff resistance from local landowners and environmental groups in federal court.

The latest effort began in 2010 when Arch Coal leased coal tracts from Montana and announced that it would develop a mine to harvest the state’s low-sulfur coal. While the STB initially approved the project, it later required the Tongue River Railroad to file a new application because it had significantly altered its route. The STB issued an environmental impact statement in April 2015 but months later the Tongue River Railroad asked the board to hold off on permitting the project because of the decline of the coal market. In December, the Northern Plains Resource Council and a coalition of opponents requested the STB dismiss the application completely.

In its decision, the STB stated it decided to kill the project because Arch Coal declared bankruptcy and suspended its mining permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

“At this time, there appears to be little prospect that Otter Creek Coal’s mine permit will be secured in the foreseeable future,” the board wrote.
BNSF Railway officials tell Trains News Wire that they are disappointed with the board’s decision.

“In the event development conditions improve in the future, renewing the project will require a new permit application and environmental review,” says railroad representative Matt Jones.

However, local landowners were happy with the decision after fighting the project for years.

“It’s a great day for southeastern Montana landowners,” says Mark Fix, a Tongue River rancher. “The threat of eminent domain has been hanging over my head ever since I bought my ranch. It’s a huge relief to know I can get back to raising cattle and wheat without the threat of condemnation hanging over my head.”

Even if the STB had approved the project, in the end it was unlikely the railroad would have been built anytime soon. As Trains News Wire reported last week, western coal traffic has dropped off significantly in recent months. According to BNSF officials, traffic on the railroad's Bighorn Subdivision through northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana has dropped in the last 12 months by more than 50 percent.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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