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

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