Coal rail project rolls on

Montana State Roundup

Published January 1, 2008  | January 2008 issue

A long-planned railroad that would haul coal from southeastern Montana to Miles City cleared one more obstacle when opponents lost a bid to delay approval of the final leg of the project. But the $340 million line, first proposed 25 years ago, could still be derailed by continuing legal challenges.

Developers of the Tongue River Railroad want to ship coal mined in the Powder River Basin to markets on the West Coast and in the Upper Midwest. Opponents, including ranchers and conservation groups, have long maintained that the project would damage the environment, supplant existing railroad jobs and block livestock access to the Tongue River.

Last November, the federal Surface Transportation Board approved the last of three sections of the project. In doing so, it denied a request by opponents to delay approval until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on an earlier lawsuit charging that the board had not weighed the combined environmental impact of the railroad and proposed coal bed methane development in the region.

The STB's latest decision is hardly the end of debate over the 130-mile railroad, which runs from Miles City to Decker. Though all three legs have been approved, additional legal challenges are expected before the first railroad spike is hammered; foes have already filed a request with the appeals court to review the board's latest decision.

Phil Davies