From the mouths of Powder River coal mines in Montana and Wyoming to prospective West Coast shipping ports 1,000 miles away, controversy ripples down railroad tracks.
Hundreds of communities along Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Montana Rail Link routes debate how much coal transport will increase rail traffic and how that will impact their communities.
Will it physically fracture cities and towns as increasing numbers of trains roll through, blocking crossings and backing up traffic? How much noise and coal dust will be generated by the trains? Who pays if costly grade separations — underpasses or overpasses — are needed?
Then there is the biggest unanswered question of all: How many more trains will there be?
Even the railroads don’t seem to know.
Numbers vary wildly in Billings, which along with Spokane, Wash., is expected to bear the brunt of any increased rail traffic. Estimates of 40, 60, even and many as 90 trains a day have been tossed around since last spring.
The railroads scoff at those numbers. Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link told a state legislative committee meeting in Billings last summer that a more realistic number is an increase of eight loaded and eight empty trains. He said not all of those trains would be carrying coal.
“We are tied to a capacity issue,” he said, noting that two bottlenecks — the Bozeman Hill and the Continental Divide — would prevent MRL from moving anything more than 16 additional trains.
Billings now sees an average 15 trains a day — about a third of them going to or from Powder River mines.
Susann Lundsberg, spokeswoman for BNSF, said in an interview last fall that it shouldn’t be assumed that all of the coal going to the ports will be from Montana and northern Wyoming.
“We don’t know the source of the coal,” she said. “It could come from Colorado or southern Wyoming.”
Those mines are served by the Union Pacific Railroad, she said. It’s not even certain BNSF will have access to new ports, Lundsberg said.
None of five proposed ports is anywhere close to approval. One of the biggest obstacles is gaining authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The process includes environmental-impact statements.
Many communities in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington — more the farther west you go — were disappointed that the Corps decided not to extend its environmental study of the proposed Cherry Point Terminal near Bellingham, Wash., back to the coal fields.
Communities closer to the mines, where taxes and the promise of employment are chief concerns, opposed expanding the EIS, fearing that it would slow or stop plans to enlarge existing mines or build new ones.
While domestic sales of coal are on the decline, mine owners are watching expanding Asian markets. Cloud Peak Energy, which operates the Spring Creek Mine near Decker and the Antelope and Codero Rojo mines near Gillette, estimates coal-generation capacity in India and China will increase 58 percent to 439 gigawatts by 2035. (A gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts.)
A new coal-fired plant comes online about once a week in China. Montana and Wyoming, with some of the largest coal reserves in the world, want to grab a chunk of that market.
Two years ago, Montana leased an estimated 572 million tons of coal reserves near Ashland to Arch Coal for $86 million and future royalties. Arch has applied for a permit to build the Otter Creek strip mine in the Tongue River country. Arch also has interest in a proposed coal-shipping terminal at Longview, Wash.
To get Otter Creek coal to market, Arch, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and candy billionaire Forrest Mars hope to build the Tongue River Railroad to intersect existing rail lines headed west.
The railroad has been on the drawing board since the 1980s and has always generated opposition from local landowners. It was originally proposed as an 89-mile line that would ferry the coal from Ashland to Miles City.
But on Dec. 17, the railroad submitted a supplemental application to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) modifying its preferred route to take coal from the Ashland area to a point near Colstrip rather than to Miles City.
The new “Colstrip Alignment” is 42 miles long, less than half the distance of the original preferred route.
The railroad contends that the shorter route will have fewer impacts and affect few landowners.
Railroad opponents, including the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grass-roots conservation organization, have asked the STB to revoke the railroad’s modified application.
In a petition filed Jan. 7, opponents contend that the proposed new route is more than a minor modification, but a “major addition to the BNSF rail system that will allow BNSF to haul significant quantities of Montana coal to West Coast Export terminals.”
The petition argues that the modification proposed by the railroad has impacts all the way from southeastern Montana ranches to the Pacific Northwest. The application for modification was filed under a 30-year-old docket number for a never-constructed railroad whose purpose was to get coal to domestic markets in the East, not to ship coal to the West Coast for export, the petition says.
The change in route affects a new set of landowners and has not been studied, opponents claim.
Clint McRae, a rancher whose property will be divided by either route, said that in hearings late last year, the Colstrip Alignment proposal was not part of the discussion. He and other landowners were not given the opportunity to comment on it, McRae said.
“We were not allowed to talk about it at the scoping hearing going on, because it was not the preferred alternative,” he said. “They are making a monkey of the system. This is extremely frustrating.”
The Colstrip route will involve less of his ranch, but it would still divide his place in half for four miles and impede his ability to move cattle from summer to winter pastures.
“We’ve been fighting the Tongue River Railroad for 30 years now,” he said. “Why are we facing federal condemnation for a private railroad to ship coal to China?”
Walter Archer, co-chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council’s Tongue River Railroad Task Force, said the proposed route change may be better for some landowners but “it’s still going to affect a lot of people.”
He wants the comment process reopened to allow the new set of landowners in the railroad’s path to comment.
“Part of the process has been gone around,” he said.
Archer doesn’t like the idea of the railroad at all.
“The way I view it is that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Montana,” he said. “There is no way this is going to help it.”