New route picked for planned Montana coal railroad

Matthew Brown, Associated Press
Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Owners of a railroad that would open Montana's coal fields to increased mining offered a new route for the disputed line on Monday, which backers said would be shorter and affect fewer landowners.

A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway Co. said the 42-mile new route would link up with an existing rail line in Colstrip to reach a proposed coal mine near Ashland. That's down from 83 miles under the owners' prior preferred route through Miles City.

It also would avoid a state fish hatchery in Miles City that had emerged as a potential obstacle to approval. The price tag dropped from previous estimates of $490 million to roughly $416 million, spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said.

But landowners and conservation groups have fought the project for decades, and it's unlikely the changes will fully satisfy the railroad's critics.

The long-stalled railroad was bought last year by BNSF Railway, Arch Coal Inc. and billionaire Forrest Mars Jr., following decades of delays due to court challenges and financing hurdles.

It's intended to carry up to 20 million tons of coal annually from Arch's proposed Otter Creek mine to West Coast ports, where the fuel would be loaded onto ships for export to Asia.

Approval from the Surface Transportation Board is needed before construction could begin. A revised application for the project was submitted to the board on Monday, Lundsberg said.

An STB spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The revised application had not been posted to the agency's website late Monday.

The STB held public meetings on the proposed railroad in November, and recently extended the initial public comment period on the proposal until Jan. 11.

The Colstrip route had been considered in the past, but was rejected due to the steeper grades that trains would have to surmount to move loads out of the coal-rich Powder River Basin along the Montana-Wyoming border. Under the STB's environmental review process, the Colstrip route will be one of several alternative alignments considered.

Lundsberg said changes in industry practices — such as using locomotives at the back of trains to push heavy loads up steep sections of track — made the Colstrip route is newly viable.

"Our engineering team did some preliminary research and determined it can be efficiently operated," she said.

Rancher Clint McRae, who owns a ranch near Colstrip, said the new route would cut through his property for eight miles or more, setting the stage for his cattle operation to be severely disrupted.

If approved, the railroad would be able to use eminent domain to acquire the land it needs.

"I am not the least bit interested in having a private, for-profit corporation use the power of eminent domain to condemn my private land so we can export coal to China," McRae said. "This is nothing more than an underhanded attempt to slide something under the radar."

Economists have projected that the mine and railroad combined could generate almost 2,000 temporary construction jobs and several hundred permanent mining jobs. McRae and others have warned that would come at the expense of rural communities along the line, and they say burning the coal could worsen climate change.

In an application for the project submitted in October, month, the railroad relied in part on information from the original proposal for the line from 1983. The Surface Transportation Board said in a Nov. 1 decision that it wanted up-to-date information, including more details on the line's ownership structure.