Tongue River ranchers challenge attempt to freeze railroad proceedings
On Friday, December 1, Northern Plains Resource Council and Rocker Six Cattle Company made a formal filing with the Surface Transportation Board opposing the Tongue River Railroad Company’s request to indefinitely suspend their application to construct the Tongue River Railroad (TRR). They argued that the Board should instead deny the permit application. If permitted, the TRR would condemn up to 90 miles of working family farm and ranchland in southeastern Montana to build a new rail line to ship coal from the proposed Otter Creek coal mine to proposed Pacific Northwest coal export facilities.
Landowners are concerned that freezing the permitting process dangles the threat of eminent domain over their properties for potentially untold years to come. “My family and our neighbors have been facing federal condemnation of our private land for this speculative project for 38 years,” said Clint McRae, whose ranch is crossed by up to 9 miles of the proposed railroad. “This latest delay by the TRR is the last straw. It is time to deny the railroad permit. They have had ample time to prove a need for the railroad and they have failed.”
Landowners argue that even the threat of condemnation has a profound negative impact on their ranching operations, forcing them to delay or abandon important improvements. Ranchers have held off on building pipelines, wells, irrigation systems, fence networks, and more for years, out of concern that these expensive infrastructure projects could be wiped out by the railroad. The threat of condemnation has a severe negative impact on property values as well.
The Tongue River Railroad Company’s move to freeze their application comes at a time when domestic coal consumption is declining, Asian coal prices are half of what they were four years ago, and Arch Coal, the sole owner of the proposed Otter Creek coal mine, is expected by many financial analysts to declare bankruptcy in January.
“It’s clear that Tongue River Railroad Company is working the system at landowners’ expense, holding condemnation over our heads on the long odds that coal markets might eventually improve and Arch Coal’s financial situation picks up. But they’re hoping for a Hail Mary pass that isn’t coming, and that kind of game playing just isn’t right” said Mark Fix, a past chair of Northern Plains Resource Council and rancher who also faces potential condemnation by the TRR. “An out-of-state corporation shouldn’t be able to threaten our property rights on pure speculation.”
–Northern Plains Resource Council