BILLINGS – About 25 people gathered Wednesday to hear and talk about why they don’t want federal regulators to approve the Tongue River Railroad.
A 4,000-page draft Environmental Impact Statement on the construction of the proposed railroad, which would carry coal from the proposed Otter Creek coal mine in southeastern Montana, includes 11 alternatives, one of which is to do nothing.
Tongue River Railroad prefers a 42-mile route that runs from Colstrip southeast to a point north of Ashland, but the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which completed the lengthy document, has no preferred alternative.
During a meeting billed as a “people’s hearing” conducted by the Northern Plains Resource Council, Clint McRae, who owns Rocker Six Cattle Co., a cow-calf operation along Rosebud Creek, said he has an issue with the federal government condemning his land – especially for a single-source railroad.
With an increasing array of regulations being visited upon the coal industry, “in 10 years, it won’t be economic for that mine to fly, and that’s why I think they’re pushing so hard,” he said. “When people tell me I’ll be compensated (for his land after condemnation), I always ask, ‘What is the value of land that is not for sale?’ ”
He said that if the Colstrip alternative is approved and constructed, the railroad would cut off water sources to several of his pastures. A county road would also have to be moved in nine locations along his property. “Hundreds of property owners and thousands of acres would be impacted,” he said, including a number of people who live within 50 feet of Colstrip alternative tracks. “They would be more impacted than we are.”
Although the draft EIS mentions Midwestern coal plants as the ultimate destination for Otter Creek coal, which is owned by Arch Coal, the company that has a partial interest in the Tongue River Railroad, McRae thinks the coal will actually end up in China.
“They need to tell us where this coal is headed,” he said.
Residents, some members of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council, voiced their opinions, which will be transcribed and sent on to the Surface Transportation Board as formal comments.
Alaina Buffalo Spirit of Billings said she still practices Native American ceremonies in a teepee or sweat lodge. “We pray and sing. It is very quiet,” she said. “I don’t want any noise pollution while I’m praying, just like any American church wouldn’t.”
The Tongue River “is still somewhat clean. We’ve swam there since I was a child. I want my children to be able to enjoy what I enjoy today.”
Lori Byron, a pediatrician in Hardin, said the World Health Organization has said there may be no safe threshold for fine particulate matter, including the 500 pounds of coal dust that can be blown off a train going from Montana to the West Coast.
Kathleen Masis, a family physician who practices in the Heights, said that to her, the “DEIS,” for Draft Environmental Impact Statement, stands for something completely different: Doubt Everything It Says.
“They should be embarrassed for putting out this tripe,” said Ed Gulick of Billings.
If the coal is exported to Asia, Larry Bean, who chairs the coal export committee of YVCC, said train traffic through Billings could nearly double.
“We see that the Tongue River Railroad, if built, would result in many negative impacts to Billings and very few benefits,” he said.
According to a question-and-answer guide published by the Surface Transportation Board, there have been four Tongue River Railroad Co. proposals filed over the past 35 years or so. The STB is the federal agency with licensing authority over construction and operation of rail lines in the interstate rail network.
The STB has extended the comment period on the proposal to Aug. 24. Comments can be made by visiting tonguerivereis.com.