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Grassroots resistance and the coal industry crash saved this southeastern Montana landscape from being carved up by Arch Coal's proposed mine and coal-hauling railway. (Photo: Northern Plains Resource Council)

Grassroots resistance and the coal industry crash saved this southeastern Montana landscape from being carved up by Arch Coal's proposed mine and coal-hauling railway. (Photo: Northern Plains Resource Council)

Rejection of Montana Coal Train a 'Big Win' for Ranchers and Environmentalists

Federal board sides with grassroots opposition to Arch Coal's Tongue River Railroad project

Lauren McCauley

Driving one more nail into the coal industry's coffin, a federal board on Tuesday officially rejected a proposal to build a coal-hauling railroad through farm and ranch land in southeastern Montana.

Ranchers and environmentalists, who aggressively opposed the project, celebrated the Surface Transportation Board ruling.

"It’s a historic day when a federal agency recognizes there’s no foreseeable future for coal," stated Ken Rumelt, an attorney at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at the Vermont Law School, who represented the grassroots conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) before the Board.

"For 30 years we have said that the Tongue River Railroad is a project in search of a purpose," said Clint McRae, a Northern Plains member whose Rosebud Creek ranch would have been cut in two by the proposed rail line. "It has always been based on speculation, not need. The Surface Transportation Board has made the right decision to dismiss this project."

The railroad was intended to carry coal from Arch Coal's proposed Otter Creek mine, but that project was suspended last month after the fossil fuel giant declared bankruptcy in January. The Tongue River Railroad Company (TRRC)—which is jointly owned by Arch Coal, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, and confection king Forrest Mars Jr.—applied for the power to use federal eminent domain to construct the rail line on privately owned land.

The NPRC's petition against the project argued that "Arch's weak financial condition demonstrates that the demand for coal (and thus need for the proposed rail line) has greatly diminished and that TRRC may not have the financial ability to construct the line."

In the ruling, the Board, which falls under the federal Department of Transportation, stated: "At this time, there appears to be a little prospect that Otter Creek Coal's mine permit will be secured in the foreseeable future" citing Arch's bankruptcy and suspended mining permit.

350.org founder Bill McKibben declared the ruling a "big win," writing online: "Such kudos to the activists that fought!"


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