Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Do the Math.

"We've got to get past all the petty bickering and get to work. This is about a big transition for society over the next 50 years. The path we're on is unsustainable. We've got to change the course of the whole world."  - Dr. Stephen W. Running, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dept. of Forestry, University of Montana
It's the Global Warming, Stupid.
There is now widespread understanding across the scientific community and a growing awareness by the electorate of the truth and gravity of that statement. As evidence rolls in of more frequent and severe storms, record warm temperatures and drought, and exploding disaster recovery costs, society is now heed Dr. Running's admonishment with greater gravity, focus, and speed. That much was made clear during the Tongue River Railroad scoping hearings recently convened in SE MT.

(Image courtesy of NASA)

"A Clean and Healthful Environment" - Montana's Mandate
While much of the testimony was locally focused during those hearings, you couldn't miss the meta-theme rumbling  beneath; that those of us sitting near ground zero of fossil fuels production and transport in eastern Montana are shaken by both the direct impact and the weight of responsibility of global warming. We seriously regard the mandate of our Montana Constitution when it prescribes,
Section 1. Protection and improvement. (1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.
     (2) The legislature shall provide for the administration and enforcement of this duty.
     (3) The legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.

An Epidemic of Cognitive Dissonance.
Elected officials at all levels of government, however, are mute on climate change or satisfy themselves with peddling placations over jobs, energy independence, infrastructure and deficit reduction until, like desperation junkies, they can score that last hydrocarbon hit delivering a backdoor rush of corporate favor. In Montana, they support the Keystone XL pipeline, they support mining the Otter Creek coal tracts, they support coalbed methane drilling in the Powder River Basin, and they support building the Tongue River Railroad. Taken in part or in sum, these projects equate to "Game Over" for climate stability, water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and public safety. Our politicians have left it to the electorate to roundly stage interventions before someone, perhaps everyone, ODs. Fortunately, help is on the way from several quarters.

Do the Math Tour, 350.org (Nov. 5, 2012)

Do the Math.
Bill McKibben (author, "End of Nature"), Naomi Klein (author, "Shock Doctrine"), and others from 350.org have launched "Do the Math", a biodiesel roadshow designed to take the arithmetic behind greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to strategic cities across the country as a means of mobilizing the electorate to give recalcitrant politicians in county courthouses, statehouses, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House the cover they need to represent people before profits.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Full House in Miles City Deals a Straight Flush to the Tongue River Railroad

U.S. Surface Transportation Board gets strong pushback against Tongue River Railroad during evening session of Miles City scoping hearing. 

Mark Fix, Tongue River Valley, MT.

Local author, Karen Stevenson, delivered an artful, passionate and serious-minded defense of the beauty and biology of the Tongue River Valley and lamented the absurdity of trashing it so that dirty loads could be shipped to foreign shores. Rocker 6 Ranch owner and renowned poet, Wallace McRae, delivered a final word of caution to fellow landowners in the path of eminent domain, "When you get your 30 pieces of silver, you're done." The only off-color and belligerent notes of the evening were sounded during an "Eastwooding" of Berkshire Hathaway chairman, Warren Buffett, and TRR Company president, Mike Gustafson, by a Custer Co. resident who shall remain nameless out of respect for his lovely bride.

The Day 4 evening session of the Tongue River Railroad (TRR) Scoping Hearings before representatives of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) in Miles City topped the attendance of the afternoon session and the oral testimony of 16 different speakers included no vocal support for the proposed railroad. None. Coupled with testimony earlier in the day, only 10% of speakers supported the TRR, echoing the faintest of support of the prior 3 days of hearings. 

Evening cheer at the TRR Scoping Hearing, Elks Lodge, Miles City.

Note: No media representatives were present during the evening session - a pattern of neglect repeated throughout the entire scoping hearing process. However, Sen. Tester and Sen. Baucus were represented at both sessions on Thursday.

A railroad in search of "Public Convenience and Necessity"
The scoping hearings are a preliminary step in the development of a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the TRR. The EIS is a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and a NEPA review is mandatory for a common carrier like a railroad that is issued a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Several speakers throughout the evening challenged the idea that the TRR meets the threshold of providing "public convenience and necessity".

Former legal counsel for the MT. Public Service Commission, Terry Hanson, argued that "a common carrier railroad hauling a single commodity to ports where it is shipped to China to generate profits for a single corporation, Arch Coal, can hardly be called a 'public convenience and necessity."

Deborah Hanson echoed her husband's argument that the TRR is a railroad in search of a "public convenience and necessity" since there can be no clear U.S. demand for freight that is bound for China. And she pointed out that both the point-of-origin (Otter Creek coal tracts) and the terminus (West Coast ports) of TRR shipments have not been permitted, reinforcing the vacuum of public necessity. Hanson then listed a host of hazardous local outcomes such as flood and fire threat, noxious weed introduction, and MT FWP Fish Hatchery impacts that must be "addressed in detail as part of the EIS." She closed with support for the "no action" alternative stating that the railroad simply "privatized profits while socializing costs."

Zooming in from that "30,000 ft. view"
The STB was instantly dropped from the distant perspective of a visiting bureaucracy when the mic was handed to writer and mother, Karen Stevenson. Stevenson briefly described her years along the Tongue River upstream of Birney, MT. where she raised her children before asking the Board to give careful consideration to all that would be changed forever if the TRR is permitted. Recounting the sites and history of the area that hold intrinsic spiritual value to her friends among the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Stevenson demanded the identification and protection of archeological and anthropological sites within the valley. She thoughtfully named native plants and local wildlife populations as critical recreational and ecological assets that would be placed at-risk by the proposed routes. She described the hard work, capital investment, and benefits derived from Tongue River Fish Passage as well as the local economic value of the Tongue & Yellowstone Irrigation District. In closing, Stevenson questioned the morality of destroying a pristine prairie valley in order to "ship dirty loads to foreign shores."

Ray Muggli told the Board and the audience that his farm along the Tongue River has been in his family since 1948 and now supports the largest hay cubing operation in Montana. Muggli noted that the noxious weeds typically introduced by trains passing through other locations represent a threat to his enterprise.

Across the river and further downstream from Muggli, the 55,000 acre Ft. Keogh USDA Range Research Laboratory is targeted for miles of the proposed TRR route. Dr. Mark Peterson offered testimony outlining the important past and present beef cattle and range science research work done at the facility and pressed the Board to explore routes that provided the "least possible disturbance to USDA research and the neighboring ranches of Ft. Keogh."

Miles City science teacher, Bill Tramp, reminded those in attendance of the spring flooding of 2011 by describing how a lake formed along the BNSF line and around his home in the Yellowstone Valley and lasted for days because the railroad blocked the natural evacuation route of the floodwaters to the river. 

Diana Broadie, Miles City Planning Director, commented that a detailed study of impacts to Miles City infrastructure was required since an increase in rail traffic beyond the TRR junction through Miles City would block emergency services access to one side of town, impair general traffic flow, and increase train noise through the city.

Retired commercial owner/operator Karl Harmon issued a simple, strongly-worded statement: "No to railroad and stop using coal now!"

From Ashland, rancher Dan Wheeler opened the testimony with word that his operation was in the bullseye of the first leg of the TRR so eminent domain is certain if a permit is issued. Due to grade changes, he stated that railbed excavation on his ranch would degradate the look, feel, and function of his beef cattle operation and he'd never recover the full measure of land taken by condemnation. "What's a lifetime of work worth?", Wheeler asked.

Roger Jacobs, a well-known real estate broker from Billings, was short and to the point when he said, "A railroad through this (Tongue River) valley would destroy it and that would be a shame."

The Kitchen and the Motel
Kelly Radue, an active leader of the local Pheasants Forever chapter and a rancher with two miles of Tongue River frontage, shared information about the habitat restoration project that Pheasants Forever was performing on his place and how robustly wildlife of every type was responding to the reclamation work. Radue described how one day he and his wife witnessed a mountain lion crossing their yard from the living room window. "You can't replace that kind of wildness once it's gone. A railroad through the middle of our valley will change it forever."

Mark Fix, Tongue River alfalfa grower, noted that the proposed Main route runs through 3 miles of his ranch and the proposed Moon Creek Alternative in the unscaled TRR map released just a few days before the hearing appears to run through another miles of his place. He told the Board that there's an abundance of wildlife on his ranch and that he provides public hunting access through the Block Management program, administered through Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Fix registered concerns that the increased liability of rail traffic would make continued public access unlikely should the TRR be permitted. He expressed frustration at having to fight off the TRR since 1980 saying, "There really should be a time limit on permitting." Finally, Fix closed by supporting the "no action" alternative and suggesting that, "You can't mitigate forever. At some point, you simply have to say no."  

Maintaining a Clean and Healthful Environment for Montana
Carrying a schoolroom globe on her bicycle for use as a visual aid during the hearing, Mary Catherine Dunphy, refused to ignore the logical endpoint of the transport of Otter Creek coal over the TRR: Global Warming. She reminded the Board that Article IX of the Montana Constitution requires every Montanan "to maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations." Dunphy referenced remarks by University of Montana professor, Stephen W. Running, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 when he said, "The path we're on is unsustainable. We've got to change the course of the whole world." She addressed the Board and said, "You have the power to change the world by choosing the "no action" alternative. I urge you to do so."

"This is a game."
A weary Wally McRae, rancher and celebrated author from Rosebud Co., is facing two proposed routes crossing his Rocker 6 Ranch: the Colstrip Alternative, that would bisect 9 miles of pasture, and the original route, which would cut a 4 mile path across another. Yet, he and his family drove over 60 miles to Miles City to open with the statement that, "This is a game." From that point forward, those in attendance were educated in clear and direct terms by a seasoned veteran of over 40 years of coal wars. He recalled that when the Surface Transportation Board was called the Interstate Commerce Commission, he and others had finally convinced one of the sitting commissioners to put through a motion that restricted the permitting process to 3 years. Shortly afterward, the commissioner was replaced and the motion to restrict permitting was immediately rescinded. 

He closed with two cautions for landowners in the path of proposed TRR routing. First, he advised a thorough reading of the EIS draft stating that, "I've seen drafts with 174 'shoulds', no 'shalls' and no 'woulds'." And then, he warned, "Once you get your 30 pieces of silver, you're done."

"Guardian Angel", Tongue River Stories, Martha Scanlan 

Your turn to comment.
While the Scoping Hearings in Miles City have ended, the STB will accept written comment by mail or e-mail through December 6, 2012.

Mailing address:
Ken Blodgett
Surface Transportation Board
ATTN: Environmental Filing, Docket No. FD 30186
395 E. Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20423-0001

To submit electronically, visit http://www.stb.dot.gov and click on the E-Filing link.

The Board especially welcomes comments identifying needs to be studied in the EIS, items to avoid, and ways to mitigate problems. Be clear, concise and relevant to the project. Specific examples for study are preferred over statements of general opposition.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Day 4 of TRR Scoping Hearings: Afternoon Session

Opponents and proponents mix it up over Tongue River railroad before Surface Transportation Board and full house in Miles City

Session opens to diverse interests and high turnout. 
Beneath a caped bull elk above the fireplace mantle in the Fireside Room of the historic Miles City Elks Lodge, Day 4 of the Tongue River Railroad Scoping Hearings was called to order by representatives of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB). The crowd was a rough mix of over 150 ranchers, farmers, railroaders, laborers, professionals, businessmen, educators, authors and others gathered from throughout SE MT. to hear the testimony of neighbors and offer some of their own. Nearly one in five of those attending stood to address the board or one another as the Miles City police chief and his assistant stood guard in the foyer.

What's a Scoping Hearing?
A scoping hearing provides public guidance to the initial drafting of an environmental impact statement (EIS) as part of the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). NEPA compliance is required of projects having the potential to damage or irrevocably alter the environment, as determined by law and agency rulemaking.

BNSF disaster response along coal routes during Spring, 2011

Who's driving this train?
The current incarnation of the proposed railroad is the brainchild of promoter, Mike Gustafson, president of the Tongue River Railroad Company (TRR), and this is his second run at permitting the railway. His first attempt, initiated in 1980, was denied in 2011 when the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) prevailed against TRR in its appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals over the inadequacy of the STB's Environmental Impact Statement. The TRR has since reorganized and is now owned by Arch Coal, BNSF, and Forrest Mars. Following reorganization and permit denial, the TRR has recently submitted a revised permit to the STB.

Tongue River, Northern Cheyenne Reservation
(Courtesy of Montana Film Office)

"Can you hear me now"?
Participation at each of these hearings has exceeded general expectations and testimony from locals is reported as both colorful, informative, and nearly unanimous in support of a "No Action" decision by the Board.

On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, tribal members spoke defiantly to the STB against a project that would erode air and water quality, wildlife habitat, and native culture. In Rosebud County, the STB got a crash course in cow psychology and was reminded that profits delivered to a single company that ships a critical U.S. resource to foreign shores hardly constitutes what could called the "public good". In Powder River County, site of the quarter-million acre Ash Creek Fire this past summer, an impressive gathering of ranchers and Northern Cheyenne tribal members framed the TRR controversy as an environmental injustice pitting neighbor against neighbor and discounting the value of agricultural economy against energy economy.

Tongue River Fish Passage - Part of the kitchen in the Tongue River valley's "restaurant".
(Courtesy of Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks)

"The riparian area's the restaurant and the hills are the motel."
The two cops at the front door were the first and only real indicator of tension during the first hearing in Miles City on Thursday. Roughly 70 persons signed into the afternoon session. The SE MT. Economic Development (SEMDC) folks were huddled in one corner, the NPRC contingent in another, STB staff were stationed at display tables, and locals got jovially reacquainted ahead of the hearing. Miles City Star reporter, Amorette Allison, was seated in the front row while her spouse/staff photographer, Steve snapped shots throughout the room before the fall of the gavel.

As the 11 speakers were called up, board members and attendees listened attentively without applause or caterwauling and several distinct scoping issues were addressed. Two speakers specifically demanded a "no action" decision by the STB, 3 speakers expressed outright support for the TRR, and the remainder either requested expanded and specific environmental scoping or offered anecdotes related to railway experience. In order of appearance, the messaging of each speaker was as follows:

  • Joe Whalen, immediate past mayor of Miles City, delivered a prepared statement demanding that a thorough and current flood threat assessment, drafted by either the USGS or the Corps of Engineers, be included as part of the Water Resources requirement of the EIS.
  • Commissioner Hamilton, representing the Custer Co. Commission, expressed support for the TRR, contingent upon a thorough study of and mitigation of impacts to county infrastructure such as roads.
  • Richard Bonine, principal of LandTrak Resources, argued for the relocation of proposed routes off of the Tongue River floodplain, mitigation of impaired livestock and wildlife routes to the riparian area, and greater sensitivity to cultural and ethnobotanical resources throughout the valley.
  • Mark Fix, Tongue River valley rancher, demanded a "no action" decision by the Board based upon arguments that the "public good" justification for eminent domain has not been met, his property value will be deeply discounted, and his farming operation impaired by the proposed railway. He also stated, "A permit really ought to have a time limit attached to it." 
  • Wade Sikorski, Fallon Co. farmer, demanded a "no action" decision by the Board after outlining how climate change is already damaging his farming operation and providing examples of yield reductions due to growing season shifts.
  • Jack Regan, retired superintendent of schools in Custer Co., offered strong support for the TRR as a means of increasing the tax base. He listed examples of failing school infrastructure that could use additional property tax revenue derived from both the railroad and coal mining.
  • Mack Cole, Rosebud Co. farmer and retired legislator, expressed support for the TRR while discounting the impacts of major transportation infrastructure upon farming/ranching operations. He said that the right-of-way of the railroad provides good feed and wildlife habitat on his place
  • Julie Korkow, grant administrator for SEMDC, contrasted current Powder River Co. income with projected income from jobs at Otter Creek and indicated that the TRR would boost her local economy. 
  • Brian Schoof, a local retiree and one of the political activists responsible for the Obama "noose" incident at a Tea Party booth at the Eastern MT. Fair, supports the TRR and wants "government to get as far away from the process as possible." (This is Brian's standard comment.)
  • Bill Mulkey, retired rancher, stated "I think you should do it but I want you to do it right."
  • Bill Almy, Fallon Co. farmer/rancher, echoed Mack Cole's sentiments in stating that BNSF had been a good neighbor, built the best fences in the area, and that the rail had improved his place. 

The Miles City Star committed to afternoon session coverage but was not present during the evening session.

Note: Higher attendance on each hearing date has occurred during evening sessions. Yet, traditional media elected to cover only afternoon sessions, for some reason.

Next: Full house in Miles City deals a straight flush to Tongue River Railroad during evening session

Monday, November 12, 2012

Miles City Star OpEd - "Can't You Hear the Whistle Blowing?"

November 9, 2012

Marla Prell, Editor
Miles City Star
818 Main St.
Miles City, MT. 59301

Tongue River Railroad Requires Flood Threat Study

Beyond bisecting pastures and irrigated farms from Otter Creek to Miles City, all of the routes proposed by the Tongue River Railroad (TRR) slice the floodplain of the valley in half, likely raising the threat of flooding against all property owners along the river and in Miles City. Remember the lakes that formed from the storm flooding of May, 2011? Now imagine how the rising and northbound channeling of those floodwaters would impact properties along an elevated south/north railbed up to and including Miles City.

Truth is, we have no idea what those impacts would be because the last Environmental Assessment (EA) prepared for the TRR failed to include a thorough and current flood risk assessment of the proposed routes. At the very least, a new flood risk study of both the valley and Miles City is required as part of the mandatory Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before a railroad should ever permitted by the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

Two scoping hearings for the latest permit application by the TRR are scheduled for this Thursday between 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, 619 Pleasant St. in Miles City.

These scoping hearings are our chance to meet with STB and other state agency staff to discuss all elements of the proposed TRR, prior to more formal proceedings. If you value your property and safety, attend one of these hearings and make a formal public comment for the record that demands a thorough flood risk assessment of all proposed TRR routes as part of the EIS before further consideration of this latest permit application by the Surface Transportation Board.


Joe R. Whalen
Miles City