Updated Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 05:31 PM
Opponents of a railroad that would open Montana's coal fields to new mining have asked federal officials to halt their review of the proposal, alleging it would be much larger than disclosed with impacts stretching to the West Coast.
The project also is drawing increased scrutiny in Washington state, where officials expressed worry that coal export traffic could further strain crowded rail lines.
The Tongue River Railroad would haul roughly 20 million tons of fuel annually from a planned Arch Coal Inc. strip mine near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, according to its backers. It's been billed as a major economic boost for remote southeastern Montana.
But opponents said Thursday they want to turn the spotlight on the potential for the $416 million railroad to spur more mining of coal for export to Asia, along a route through Montana, Idaho and Washington state.
They allege the railroad's owners intentionally played down the scope of the project by saying it would haul an average of 7.4 full and empty coal trains a day. That figure counts only Arch's immediate mine plan.
A second rail spur proposed as part of the railroad's application would give access to additional coal fields. At least one mine, the Montco Mine, was previously proposed in that area. The Northern Cheyenne also have had discussions with companies about mining.
The railroad acknowledged the potential for additional mines in its Dec. 17 application for federal approval. They did not provide any potential volumes.
A spokeswoman for railroad co-owner BNSF Railway Co. said Thursday that the company counted only coal coming from Otter Creek because it is the only mine currently pending. Arch referred questions to BNSF.
If more mines were built, traffic on the Tongue River Railroad could quickly top the government's higher-impact threshold of eight trains daily.
Under federal law, that would trigger a more intensive environmental review, including an air pollution analysis, if Tongue River Railroad was preparing the environmental study of the project. However, because the Surface Transportation Board is leading the study, it's uncertain if that threshold applies.
Others want the application rejected outright. Citing the potential for increased train traffic, the Rocker Six Cattle Co. and Northern Plains Resource Council this week petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to reject the railroad's application.
Their attorney Jack Tuholske, said the railroad "fudged the numbers by not disclosing the potential volumes" from the second spur.
"They are trying to fast-track this with minimal analysis," he said. "That's why they didn't disclose the full purpose of the railroad. The route now points like an arrow to the West Coast."
The prospect of increased coal exports also has sparked interest in Washington state. The director of the Washington Department of Ecology urged federal officials in a letter last week to consider a range of far-reaching impacts from the railroad. That includes train traffic tying up rail crossings, fugitive coal dust and air pollution from locomotives.
"Additional rail being built specifically for coal trains to export coal could affect Washington State resources," Director Ted Sturdevant wrote. "It is imperative that the (Surface Transportation Board) consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts."
The Surface Transportation Board this week said it had accepted the railroad proposal for consideration. An agency spokesman said Thursday that the board will consider the opponents' petition during its review of the railroad.
First proposed in the 1980s, backers of the railroad struggled for years to line up financing until being bought out in 2011 by BNSF, Arch Coal and candy-industry billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.
Last month, the co-owners unveiled a new route for the line, through Colstrip instead of Miles City.
Railroad attorneys wrote in their application that the railroad "has the potential to transport additional coal from the considerable coal resources that are located (in the area) and will service any mines developed in the area."
BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said Thursday the Colstrip route reduces the number of affected landowners, avoids a state fish hatchery and eliminates the need to cross over Interstate 94.
In separate proceedings involving Otter Creek, Montana regulators will host three public meetings next week to establish the scope of the state's environmental review for the mine.
Meetings are scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Broadus, and on Jan. 17 at 2 p.m. in Ashland and at 6 p.m. in Lame Deer.
Surface Transportation Board: http://www.stb.dot.gov
Montana Department of Environmental Quality: http://www.deq.mt.gov