Opponents of a railroad that would open Montana's coal fields to new mining have asked federal officials to halt their review of the proposal, alleging that it would be much larger than disclosed with impacts stretching to the West Coast.
Backers of the Tongue River Railroad say it would haul up to 20 million tons annually from a planned Arch Coal Inc. strip mine near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
But opponents said Thursday that they want to turn the spotlight on the potential for the $416 million railroad to spur more mining of coal for export to Asia, along a route through Montana, Idaho and Washington state.
They allege that the railroad's owners intentionally played down the scope of the project by saying it would haul an average of 7.4 full and empty coal trains a day. That figure counts only Arch's immediate mine plan.
A second spur proposed by the railroad would give it access to additional coal fields west of Arch's mine. At least one mine, the Montco Mine, was previously proposed in that area. The Northern Cheyenne have also had discussions with companies about mining.
Attorneys for the railroad acknowledged the potential for additional mines in their Dec. 17 application for federal approval. They did not provide any potential volumes.
A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway said she could not immediately respond Thursday to questions about coal volumes. Arch referred questions to BNSF.
If more mines were built, traffic on the Tongue River Railroad could quickly top the government's threshold of eight trains daily and trigger a more intensive environmental review. That would include an air pollution analysis.
Citing the potential for increased train traffic, the Rocker Six Cattle Co. and Northern Plains Resource Council this week petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to reject the railroad's application.
Their attorney, Jack Tuholske, said the railroad "fudged the numbers by not disclosing the potential volumes" from the second spur.
"They are trying to fast-track this with minimal analysis," he said. "That's why they didn't disclose the full purpose of the railroad. The route now points like an arrow to the West Coast."
Railroad attorneys wrote in their application that the railroad "has the potential to transport additional coal from the considerable coal resources that are located (in the area) and will service any mines developed in the area."
They added that there are no known mines in the works at present beyond Arch's planned Otter Creek Mine.
The Surface Transportation Board on Tuesday announced that it had accepted the railroad proposal for consideration. An agency spokesman said Thursday that the board will consider the opponents' petition during its review of the railroad.
First proposed in the 1980s, backers of the railroad struggled for years to line up financing until being bought out in 2011 by BNSF Railway Co., Arch Coal, Inc. and candy-industry billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr.
Last month, the co-owners unveiled a new route for the line, through Colstrip instead of Miles City.
BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said Thursday that the Colstrip route reduces the number of affected landowners, avoids a state fish hatchery and eliminates the need to cross over Interstate 94.
In separate proceedings involving Otter Creek, Montana regulators will host three public meetings next week to establish the scope of the state's environmental review for the mine.
Meetings are scheduled on Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. in Broadus and on Jan. 17 at 2 p.m. in Ashland and at 6 p.m. in Lame Deer.