South of Miles City, the Tongue River bends through Mark Fix's 9,700-acre ranch. He's trying to stop a coal-hauling railroad from running through it, too. Last week, Fix and other ranchers along the river notched a victory when the federal Surface Transportation Board ruled that the Tongue River Railroad Company must reapply for a permit to carry coal from the isolated Otter Creek tracts in southeastern Montana, a decision that will at least further delay the railroad that was first proposed in 1980.
"My ranch would be cut in half by the proposed Tongue River Railroad," says Fix, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. "We can only hope that, for the first time in more than 30 years, the Surface Transportation Board will ask some tough questions about whether this railroad will benefit anyone besides Arch Coal and the Chinese industrialists who will burn that coal."
A year ago, Arch, the country's second-largest coal company, which has leased about 1.4 billion tons of coal in the Otter Creek area, together with BNSF Railway and billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr., acquired the Tongue River Railroad Company and its permit. They're betting they can build the new railroad and send Otter Creek coal to West Coast export terminals. From there it would be shipped to Asia, where coal demand remains strong—unlike in the U.S., where the share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is expected to fall below 40 percent for the year, the lowest level in about 70 years.
The Tongue River Railroad lost momentum last December when the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the railroad's environmental impact statement was insufficient. That court decision, combined with changes in the railroad's proposals, led to the STB's ruling last week requiring a new application.
Northern Plains attorney and University of Montana law professor Jack Tuholske says the STB ruling "has called into question the whole premise" of the railroad, which he says has an "ever-changing" purpose.
"Twenty-five years ago, it was to haul coal to the upper Midwest. Now it is to export Montana's resources to China. ... Missoula and dozens of other communities will have a chance to weigh in and tell our federal government why this project is not in the public interest—why subsidizing China's energy and boosting corporate profits should not come at our expense."