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 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.


  1. Replies
    1. My pleasure, Beth. Thank you for taking the time to read it. Please feel free to share it with those you know who might read it or have written comment to share with the STB.