Last Chance for Public Comments on the Tongue River Railroad (the worst idea ever)

Otter Creek Valley
Otter Creek Valley
Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky/East of Billings

The Tongue River Railroad is pretty much the worst idea ever. Seriously. Hear me out.

So, Arch Coal wants to build a massive coal mine in the Otter Creek Valley in southeast Montana. The Otter Creek Mine hasn't yet been permitted, but in order to send coal from this potential mine to market, Arch Coal and BNSF Railway want to build a new 42-mile railroad (the Tongue River Railroad) in the same area.

Essentially, the proposed Tongue River Railroad is Montana's version of the "bridge to nowhere." We are talking about a railroad to take coal from a mine that doesn't exist to an export facility that doesn't exist to a market that doesn't exist.

There's so much of this situation that's based on speculation rather than facts. For example, railroad proponents now suggest the majority of the coal will go to Midwestern markets, not to Asia. How much faith would I put in that assertion? Probably not much, but really it doesn't matter.

If Arch Coal has its eye on domestic coal-fired power plants, they are likely out of luck. Otter Creek coal has an incredibly high sodium content, which makes it damaging to plant equipment and undesirable to most domestic buyers. And even if they found a way to address that issue, coal just isn't the player it once was in the U.S. energy market. In fact, from 2007 to 2014, coal's share of electricity generation fell from 48.5% to 38.7%. Experts predict this trend will continue as big power generators like the Tennessee Valley Authority announce plans to switch from coal-fired power plants to renewable energy and natural gas.

On the other hand, if their goal is to tap into a supposed booming Asian market--that's a lost cause, too, as China has enacted new policies designed both to protect its domestic coal industry and to reduce coal consumption overall. China's customs department reported a 22% decline in coal imports in the second half of 2014. Experts suggest that other policies, like a national cap-and-trade program scheduled to launch in 2016, are likely to exacerbate this downward trend in China's coal demand.

As if the lack of a market weren't enough reason for this project to disappear, one of the project partners is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Arch Coal, the company seeking approval of what could be the largest coal mine in the United States (Otter Creek) and approval of the Tongue River Railroad to haul the coal from that proposed mine, got a notice from the New York Stock Exchange that it is being removed from the exchange because it has consistently traded for less than $1 a share for more than 30 consecutive trading days. In the last two years Arch has lost about $1.2 billion, its long-term debts exceed $5 billion, and, as of yesterday, the company's stock price was 19 cents per share.

So, we have a project with no market, and a coal company on shaky financial ground, but that's not all. The public doesn't want this project. It's bad for Montana, and it's bad for the environment, and everyone knows it.

Folks who would have to live with the impacts of the proposed mine and railroad - ranchers, Northern Cheyenne tribal members, landowners, coal miners - spoke out against the Tongue River Railroad during five days of public hearings in June.

Residents raised some pretty compelling arguments, including points about wanting to maintain their lifestyles and their enjoyment of clean air and water. Here are a few other concerns that were raised:

  1. This project would actually cost coal miners jobs. Other Powder River Basin mines are barely hanging on, and would likely be closed if this project moves forward.
  2. There is insufficient analysis on impacts to livestock and ranching operations, Native American cultural sites, and Amish communities that stand in the way of the project.
  3. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement makes the asinine assertion that not building the railroad will increase greenhouse-gas emissions. Are you kidding me?
  4. Arch Coal and BNSF Railway consider the area "low-risk" for wildfires despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of acres across the proposed project landscape were scorched in 2013.
  5. There is not an adequate discussion of the difficulty of building a coal mine, new railroad, and the requisite supporting infrastructure in the rugged landscape of eastern Montana, which will involve drastic amounts of earthmoving and impacts to landowners and wildlife.
  6. The analysis incorrectly claims that the project would result in only minor adverse cumulative impacts on groundwater despite lessons we've learned elsewhere in the Powder River Basin.

The public comment period on the proposed Tongue River Railroad closes August 24. Please take a minute and tell the Surface Transportation Board that their project doesn't make sense and cannot be allowed to move forward (click here for information on how to comment). Our communities, our health, our jobs, our wildlife, and our way of life matter. Montanans are tired of sacrificing our beautiful state for the profits of a few outsiders. Coal is quickly becoming a fuel of the past--it's time to take a stand and demand an end to this nightmare project to protect the future of Montana.


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