HELENA — A company that wants to build a 42-mile railroad line to link a coal mine with potential markets has asked federal authorities to delay completing a required environmental impact study.
The Tongue River Railroad Co. requested the federal Surface Transportation Board wait until next year to complete the study.
Tongue River Railroad is owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Arch Coal Inc., and billionaire candy bar magnate Forrest Mars Jr. The rail line would deliver coal from the Otter Creek Coal tracts to Colstrip.
BNSF spokesman Matthew Jones said the Tongue River Railroad has to pay the cost of the environmental review, requiring it to work with the Surface Transportation Board and a contractor.
The contractor was about to exhaust its 2013 budget, requiring it to seek additional funding, which the railroad approved, Jones said in an email.
Kenneth Blodgett, an environmental protection specialist for the Office of Environmental Analysis, said the draft environmental impact statement was originally expected to be finished this fall or early winter but is now pushed back until sometime in 2014.
"Basically (the company) asked if some costs could be deferred," Blodgett said. "We told them they can be deferred, but it will delay issuance of the draft EIS. Some of the work is basically just being deferred until January of 2014 and beyond, and therefore we aren't going to be reaching our original target."
The proposed route of the rail line goes through private ranches, including a ranch belonging to Clint McRae.
He said he and other landowners were angry when they found out the preferred alternative involving their land wasn't on detailed maps provided during the public scoping period. The latest twist is causing ranchers to speculate on the company's financial health.
"Here we have an entity that has the power of federal eminent domain to condemn my private land and they don't even have the cash flow to get this started," McRae said. "I think if they can't fund it, or if their funding is in question, then there obviously isn't the need for this coal or this railroad. I don't believe the 'Field of Dreams' theory, where 'if you build they will come,' should apply here. I don't think that should be part of the equation."