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Associated Press Rail Link wants to use locomotives for power generation in Three Forks

THREE FORKS - The planned use of diesel-powered train locomotives to produce electricity for sale is generating concern about possible water, air and wildlife damage, based on comments during a meeting Thursday.

Montana Rail Link plans to park a half-dozen locomotives near Three Forks as part of the initial effort.

Area resident Mick Jackson said local residents presented their concerns Thursday but were told there wasn't much they could do.

"It was like taking a knife to a gun fight," Jackson said. "There's just nothing that you can do with a railroad. They're exempt from everything."

Formed through a partnership between Montana Rail Link and Cut Bank-based Commercial Energy Corp., Rail Energy plans to locate six locomotives just north of Willow Creek, where their diesel engines will make power 24 hours a day to be sold to Montana industries.

Because of laws passed by the recent Montana Legislature, there really isn't much locals can do to stop the project, said Rail Energy's Ron Perry.

However, he said, worries about noise and air pollution aren't being ignored.

"We think that they understand that we're doing our level best to mitigate and manage their concerns," Perry said. "I'm not sure they're content with our answers. No one was throwing stones at us as we drove out of the parking lot."

The meeting between Rail Energy officials and concerned residents came one day before the May 4 deadline for public comment to the Air Quality Bureau of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Most of neighbors around the proposed train site had already submitted letters opposing the Rail Energy plan.

"We utilize 8,600 acres to support livestock, registered Angus cattle numbering nearly 1,200 mother cows, that would adversely be affected by a power-generating facility," wrote Faye Parker.

Jackson balked at an environmental assessment of the project, which suggested the project's human health impact would be minor.

"What is not mentioned is the fact that the noise associated with six locomotives running continuously at 75 percent throttle will be deafening and compromises the quality of our lives," he wrote.

Talc maker Luzenac America, which has a factory right next to the proposed train site, voiced concerns that carbon from the diesel exhaust would make its talc unusable and sicken its workers. Luzenac's other concern was that locomotive noise would make its factory unsafe.

Perry said noise from the trains would be less than the noise of the Luzenac factory, about 60 decibels.

"At 100 feet, you can hear it barely," Perry said. "Our perception has been that they're OK with the noise, they're concerned about emissions."

If the locomotive exhaust becomes a problem for Luzenac, Rail Energy will address it, Perry said. For nearby homes the exhaust shouldn't be a problem, for most people, he said.

Rail Energy contends it is saving Montana jobs by selling power at below-market value to struggling industries.

Five Montana factories have already begun making power with fossil fuel generators because they can't afford to buy power on the deregulated energy market. The average retail price now on the open market is about $250 per megawatt. The locomotive power will sell for about $100 a megawatt.

Rail Energy plans to wire the trains to a nearby energy substation, where the power will be pumped onto the energy grid. Combined with another half-dozen locomotives planned for the Trident area, these generating units will produce 20 megawatts of power.

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