Helena citizens sound off on Tongue River Railroad – Helena Independent Record, June 17, 2015

June 17, 2015

Categories: Coal, Events, News, Northern Plains Resource Council


By Tom Kuglin

Opponents to the proposed Tongue River Railroad held a “citizens hearing” in Helena Tuesday evening to encourage public comment to the federal Surface Transportation Board ahead of an Aug. 24 deadline.

The 42-mile rail line would carry coal from the proposed Otter Creek mine to U.S. markets and to West Coast ports for shipping overseas. Arch Coal bought rights to the mine and would co-own the railroad with BNSF Railway Co., and Burlington Northern Sante Fe and candy industry billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

While the STB has held formal meetings in places such as Ashland north of Arch Coal’s proposed Otter Creek coal mine, the board has not held formal meetings at communities down the rail line, said Kate French, board member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which organized the Helena meeting with its affiliate, Sleeping Giant Citizens Council. French’s organization planned the hearings for Helena, Missoula, Billings and Livingston to trigger comments against the proposed railroad. Construction would come by condemning private land through imminent domain, having impacts on water and the agricultural community, she said.

A draft environmental impact statement on the railroad identifies the coal’s destination as power plants in the Midwest, but statements from Arch Coal and past proposals indicate the market for Otter Creek coal is Asia, French said.

“It was a huge shock to all of us,” French said about the shift from export to domestic use of the coal in the EIS.

The Midwest scenario relies on a “perfect displacement” principle, meaning that an equal amount of coal and jobs from existing sources would be eliminated to make way for Otter Creek coal, she said. That is “not realistic” to expect plants with existing coal supplies to switch, indicating the only other possibility as export, she added.

The EIS also fails to analyze coal markets, French said. The demand for U.S. coal in Asia has softened, and Arch Coal has seen its stock tumble from more than $70 per share to less than $1. Domestic coal use has also dropped from one half to one third of electricity generation in the last five years.

Coal’s carbon release exacerbates climate change and other pollution, French said, and developing more coal in the face of more stringent EPA power plant emission standards is unwise.

If the coal trains were to go through Helena to a yet-to-be approved coal export terminal on the West Coast, Arch Coal puts the number of additional coal trains passing through at 7.4 per day, with some analysts saying it could be as high as 26 additional trains and the associated concerns, French said.

More than 30 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, with several stepping to the microphone to offer comment that will be transcribed and submitted to the STB. All those commenting testified against the railroad, while no one testified in favor.

Proponents of the mine and railroad have argued that it would be an economic boon and bring good paying jobs to southeast Montana.

Comments ranged from potential impacts to water and agriculture in eastern Montana, increased train traffic if coal is exported and impacts to climate and health.

“The United States government should not sanction destroying Montana’s water, our community and our atmosphere simply to enrich shareholders of a private corporation by exporting coal,” said Shiloh Hernandez, Helena resident and Sleeping Giant member.

Coal is an energy source that belongs in the last century, the market for coal is falling apart and the state of Montana should not bet our future on additional coal development, he said.

Helena resident Jayson O’Neill pointed to the $21 million necessary to build an underpass on Montana Avenue among his concerns for the railroad’s approval.

Helena resident Tim Holmes said that he suffers from respiratory conditions and fears them worsening both from coal dust and climate change. He also noted his concern about impacts on Helena from more trains blocking traffic.

“We need to be phasing out coal, not jump-starting it,” said Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-East Helena, in reference to increasing EPA regulations on burning coal.

The draft environmental impact statement can be viewed at tonguerivereis.com. To publicly comment, visit public.commentworks.com/STB/TongueRiverRailroad.


220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 248-1154