FORSYTH — The third of 10 public hearings to be held in Eastern Montana on a proposed coal railroad that would run from the Ashland area to Miles City brought in a handful of differing opinions about the impact it would have on the area.
The Tuesday meeting was hosted by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which will conduct an environmental impact study (EIS) of the Tongue River Railroad, in an effort to gather community concerns and comments about the proposed line.
“Our hope is that the information that you provide to us today will help us frame our analysis and understand your concerns,” said Ken Blodgett, an environmental-protection specialist for the transportation board.
The $490 million line would ship coal — as much as 20 million tons each year — from two points south of Ashland to Miles City. Proposed routes for the line would either tie into the existing railroad line near Colstrip or build anew on either side of the Tongue River.
Arch Coal Inc., BNSF Railway and Forrest Mars Jr. bought the railway last year.
About 40 people from the surrounding area showed up for the first of two Tuesday meetings in Forsyth. During the public-comment period, only a handful of people spoke and about half of them said they were in favor of the project while the rest had specific questions or concerns.
“In numerous ways, this is potentially the greatest development opportunity that this state will see in some time,” said Jim Atchison, executive director of Southeast Montana Development.
He said the project could collect as much as $6 billion in tax receipts but that its environmental impacts need to minimized while benefits are maximized.
John Hamilton has about 15 miles of riverfront property, with one of the proposed railroad lines affecting about a mile of that property. He brought several dozen pictures of the land, crops he’s raised, game that can be hunted and area ranchers to show officials “the human face of the land.”
He said before the meeting that he’s concerned that the line running through the area will affect its natural beauty, as well as the water quality from increased activity at the two mines.
“My concerns are not especially the right-of-way issues, but what it does to the neighborhood,” Hamilton said. “It’s one of the most pristine places in Montana.”
Hamilton also expressed concerns that the coal would be shipped overseas.
"In this particular case, we have the state of Montana, which is seeing dollar signs, a railroad that's seeing dollar signs and the coal company is seeing dollar signs," he said. "But these dollar signs could all be shipping to China."
Leonard Colvin told officials that he supports the project but felt the best of the three routes was to connect with the existing lines south of Colstrip so as to "disturb less land."
Rosebud County Commissioner Doug Martens briefly spoke, asking the federal officials to ensure that there's an active discussion about how to minimize the impact on roads in the area, especially around bridges.
As the meeting's public-comment session began, Blodgett told the group gathered there that all of the comments received by Dec. 6 will be taken into consideration and that it's an important step in the EIS process.
"This scoping meeting represents one of the first opportunities for the public (to comment)," he said.
Similar meetings will be held Wednesday in Ashland at the St. Labre Indian School auditorium, 1000 Tongue River Road; in Miles City at the Elks Lodge, 619 Pleasant St.; and in Lame Deer at the Chief Little Wolf Capital Building tribal chambers, 600 S. Main Cheyenne Ave. Two meetings will be held at each location, at 2 and 6 p.m.