Okay so, the Commission doesn’t meet until tomorrow to decide on the easement for the Tongue River Railroad through the Miles City Fish Hatchery, but since it’s all but a foregone conclusion that they will grant the easement, the Bugle just decided to get the headline out of the way.
Here’s what’s going to happen: From the draft Environmental Assessment,
“Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) proposes to grant an easement and right of way on property belonging to the State of Montana that is a portion of the Miles City Fish Hatchery (MCFH) facility, which is operated by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, to the Tongue River Railroad Company, Inc. (TRRC), a Delaware corporation. The easement and right of way is required for the sole purpose of constructing and operating a single track railroad line, together with bridges, culverts, crossings, rails, ties, ballasts, signals, wires, switches, and other materials in, on, over and across land owned by the MCFH. This action will impact 24.85 acres of the total 242.25- acre site located west of Miles City, Montana“.
The Billings Gazette had a short article this morning outlining some of the remaining concerns,
“Hatchery officials have said they’re concerned about possible derailments and vibrations from trains that could disrupt breeding fish. But because the railroad’s developers have federal condemnation authority, the state is considering granting the easement in exchange for a $25 million insurance policy paid for by the railroad“.
You see, the Tongue River Railroad has been declared a national treasure by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) even while it is still a pipe dream. The EA says, “The purpose of the TRRC rail line is to provide for the transport of coal from existing and future mines in the Montana-Wyoming Powder River Basin to markets in the upper Midwest and northeast states“. Well, that’s not exactly true. The rail line would not provide any new transportation for existing Montana mines. There aren’t any mines anywhere near the proposed route. As for future mines, they are talking about the Otter Creek coal tracts which are being pushed hard by Governor “Coal Cowboy” Schweitzer and Great Northern Properties. The decision on leasing those tracts won’t come before the Montana State Land Board until September. Excuse me, do you happen to know who is the chairman of the Land Board? Oh yeah, I forgot…
Extending the rail line from Ashland to Decker wasn’t really necessary for any Montana mines. We don’t have markets served by the southern route and the Otter Creek coal is too high in sodium content for most power plants. The advantage to the company was twofold. First, it was necessary for the TRRC to prove that the line was of national importance, not just to Montana. Second, by extending the line, they were able to get the STB to declare that there is a public demand for the line and since “the interests of shippers are accorded substantial importance in assessing the public interest“, the TRRC could be granted a federal right of eminent domain which could be used as a very large hammer to hold over the head of Montana. They also want to cross other state-owned lands. The shippers in question of course, are Wyoming coal companies who would like to get access to northeastern markets. It’s just a coincidence that Montana wants to sell their Otter Creek coal, which is of much lower quality than Wyoming coal, to those same markets. Who wins?
I hope you have had a chance to visit the Tongue River Valley. It is truly one of the beautiful gems of Montana. If you haven’t been there or, if it’s been a while, take some time and see the valley this summer. I would recommend sooner rather than later. With the impacts from the railroad, the new gas and coal development, methane water flowing up the Tongue River from Wyoming and who knows what’s coming next, if you wait too long you might have to wear a rubber suit and a respirator to visit. And as for the hatchery, don’t worry, it’s insured.