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GEORGE OCHENSKI: ‘Coal Cowboy’ caught trying to pull a fast one

GEORGE OCHENSKI: ‘Coal Cowboy’ caught trying to pull a fast one

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It’s no great secret that Gov. Brian Schweitzer is the state’s leading proponent of massive coal development. After all, he blanketed the country in the early days of his first term in office peddling “clean coal,” coal-to-liquids, and carbon sequestration as a way to avoid dealing with the very polluting traditional use of coal. But none of the “clean coal” theories worked out, so Schweitzer settled for simply mining Montana’s coal for export to Asia, where it will likely be burned in dirty power plants.

To get that coal from the ground to market requires a transportation route, however, and it looks like the old “Coal Cowboy” was trying to slip an easement approval for the highly controversial Tongue River Railroad through the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission last week – and trying to do so without the required public notice.

The Tongue River Railroad, which doesn’t yet exist, has been a very hotly contested project since it was first proposed about 30 years ago. Originally, it was slated to travel up the Tongue River Valley to the strip mines in southeast Montana. For decades the ranchers and farmers of the area have fought tooth and nail to defeat the railroad, saying it would bisect their ranches, create dangerous conditions for their cattle and families and destroy the rural, agricultural nature of the area. To their great credit, their opposition to turning their valley into an energy colony for the world has been successful.

But in recent times, things have changed.

Some years back, candy magnate Forrest Mars Jr. acquired a large ranch that was threatened by the proposed railroad. At first, he was an ally of the opponents, lending his considerable resources to the battle. But then Burlington-Northern Railway (BN) was acquired by billionaire investor Warren Buffett. After Schweitzer led the effort to lease the Otter Creek Coal Tracts to Arch Coal, Inc., it, too, bought into the railroad. Finally, turning his back on his former allies, Mars bought in, too – provided the rail line would not extend as far south as his property.

Before the railroad can built it has to acquire easements over some state-owned property. One of those easements is through the Miles City Fish Hatchery, where endangered pallid sturgeon are raised. Among the many concerns with running a railroad through the hatchery are the effects of train-caused vibration on fish eggs and juvenile fingerlings and the pollution from locomotive diesel exhaust, which is expected to settle on the hatchery ponds.

And so, with no public notice, FWP Director Joe Maurier, Schweitzer’s college roommate whom he imported from Colorado to run the agency, tried to slip the easement onto the commission’s agenda. Maurier was caught in the act, however, by Great Falls Tribune Capital Bureau Chief John S. Adams and quickly pulled the item from the commission’s agenda.

Maurier claimed “nothing has changed,” and said the department needed to approve the easement or face condemnation through eminent domain. But Missoula attorney Jack Tuholske, who represents the railroad’s opponents, says the state shouldn’t grant any easements to the railroad. Why? Because its Environmental Impact Statement was ruled insufficient by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year and it lacks a permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which ordered it to submit a new application after the changes in ownership and design. Hence, the railroad has no power of eminent domain.

“The new owners have not even filed a new application to the Surface Transportation Board,” Tuholske told Adams. “The commission needs to just pause for the time being and put the burden back on the railroad to submit the application, to do the environmental analysis, and then if they want to go forward, come back to the commission with a new proposal.“

Politicizing the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is nothing new. But to do so to enable more coal burning is antithetical to the department’s mission to protect the public’s fish and wildlife resources.

As the National Wildlife Federation’s Alexis Bonogofsky said, “(The agency) has no legal obligation to grant an easement to the Tongue River Railroad Company, but they have an obligation to protect the Miles City fish hatchery.” Her sentiments were echoed by ranch-owner Clinton McRae: “If Gov. Brian Schweitzer is pushing this, he needs to visit with the landowners along the 90 miles of the Tongue River instead of working as a coal ambassador to China.”

Are you listening, Governor Schweitzer?

George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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