Railroad study delayed: Company asks regulators to defer work to 2014 – Great Falls Tribune, August 31, 2013

September 3, 2013

Categories: Agriculture, Coal, Landowner Rights, News


By John Adams

HELENA — The company proposing to build a 42-mile railroad from the Otter Creek Coal tracts to Colstrip has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to hold off on completing the required environmental impact study until sometime next year.

The deferred work on the study likely will push back the timeline for any possible future railroad construction or coal mining at Otter Creek.

The railroad, which originally planned for an 83-mile rail line between Miles City with ending points near Ashland and Otter Creek, is a necessary component of any future coal development in that part of the state.

Federal regulators with the Board’s Office of Environmental Analysis determined that the construction and operation of the proposed railroad could have “significant environmental impacts” and required the company to do a detailed environmental analysis and prepare a full environmental impact statement.

Kenneth Blodgett, an environmental protection specialist for the Office of Environmental Analysis, said the draft EIS was originally expected out this fall or early winter.

Blodgett said mounting costs of the study prompted the company to ask federal regulators to “defer the costs” of the environmental analysis until next year.

“Basically (the company) asked if some costs could be deferred,” Blodgett said. “We told them they can be deferred, but it will delay issuance of the draft EIS.”

Blodgett said the environmental review is still moving forward, but that the target date for a draft EIS has been pushed back until sometime in 2014.

“Some of the work is basically just being deferred until January of 2014 and beyond, and therefore we aren’t going to be reaching our original target,” Blodgett said.

Blodgett said part of the mounting costs stemmed from a more detail environmental review required after the public comments were received and scoping was completed on the initial proposal. There are also more route alternatives on the table than were initially proposed.

“There are a lot more expenses involved in the environmental review than were originally anticipated,” Blodgett said.

Officials for the Tongue River Railroad, which is owned by BNSF Railway, Arch Coal and billionaire candy bar magnate Forrest Mars Jr., declined to be interviewed about reason the company requested the deferral.

Matthew Jones, a spokesman for BNSF said: “The Tongue River Railroad appreciates the progress the STB is making to develop a draft EIS and we’re comfortable with the rate at which the environmental review is proceeding.”

In response to a list of questions regarding the delay on the EIS, Jones wrote this in an email to the Tribune:

“The Tongue River Railroad Co. as the applicant in the proceeding before the Surface Transportation Board is required to pay costs related to the environmental review. This requires that TRRC, the STB and its contractor ICF communicate regarding the work being done on the EIS, but the STB ultimately determines the schedule. Earlier this year, TRRC let the STB know that ICF was about to exhaust the approved budget for 2013. Additional spending authorities were required, and TRRC has approved all of the funds ICF has requested for the remainder of 2013.”

News of the setback led some people close to the process to speculate that the company could be facing financial difficulties that are affecting the environmental review process.

Clint McRae is a rancher and one of the landowners along the route of the preferred “Colstrip alternative,” the route the company has identified as its preferred rail line.

McRae and other landowners were angered when earlier this year they learned the “preferred alternative” was not included in the detailed maps provided during the public scoping period. McRae said the the public, including the landowners along the line, never got a chance to testify at the scoping hearings on the preferred route because they didn’t know the route was part of the plan.

“They can’t lay a claim that scoping on the Colstrip alternative made it too expensive because we didn’t even have scoping on the Colstrip alternative,” McRae said.

McRae said the company earlier this year was pushing to complete EIS field work by August. Many of the landowners along the route refused to grant the company’s contractors access to their lands unless the company agreed to conducted a two-year study to analyze wildlife, environmental, cultural and landowner impacts, along the route, McRae said.

McRae said the two-year timeframe was necessary to adequately study wildlife impacts, particularly in the wake of the 250,000-acre Ash Creek Fire that ripped through the region last summer. McRae said until some of the natural habitat, grasses and watersheds are restored, no accurate study can be completed.

The company did not agree to the landowners terms, so very little actual field work along the Colstrip preferred alternative route has been completed, McRae said.

“I don’t know what the spent their money on, but I don’t think they have been spending the money on these studies,” McRae said. “I think they’re pushing this back because I think they’re struggling to pay for it. If that’s the case, the STB needs to be honest about it.”

McRae said a company should have to demonstrate a public need and solid financial footing before being granted federal condemnation authority.

“Here we have an entity that has the power of federal eminent domain to condemn my private land and they don’t even have the cash flow to get this started,” McRae said. “I think if they can’t fund it, or if their funding is in question, then there obviously isn’t the need for this coal or this railroad. I don’t believe the ‘Field of Dreams’ theory, where where ‘if you build they will come,’ should apply here. I don’t think that should be part of the equation.”


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