Clint McCrae hooks up a trailer

Clint McRae, who runs the Rocker Six Cattle Co. near Colstrip, hooks up a trailer after feeding cattle in February 2013. McRae’s ranch would be divided by the proposed Tongue River Railroad.

Sponsors of a proposed railroad that would open Montana’s huge coal reserves to new mining must turn over documents about the project’s economics to a conservation group that’s opposed to the line, according to a Wednesday decision by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Board members said the information being sought by the Northern Plains Resource Council will help determine if the Tongue River Railroad is in the public interest.

The 42-mile line would cost an estimated $400 million and provide access to the proposed Otter Creek coal mine near the Wyoming-Montana border. The mine and railroad are being built in part to tap into a growing market for coal in Asia.

Mining companies eager to offset flagging U.S. demand for coal want to move the fuel to the West Coast by rail and then load it onto ships for export.

The Tongue River Railroad is co-owned by Otter Creek developer Arch Coal Inc. of St. Louis, BNSF Railway of Fort Worth, Texas, and candy-industry billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

Northern Plains has questioned whether Otter Creek would be competitive with existing mines in Wyoming. The Billings-based group also wants to see documents that could show if the railroad’s sponsors are committed to financing construction of the line and if Otter Creek is a viable project.

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Members of Northern Plains own land that could be condemned to make way for the line if it is approved.

The Surface Transportation Board denied some of the group’s information requests, including whether Arch has future plans to sell the mine. The board said the prospects for a future sale of the mine were not relevant to whether the railroad is in the public interest.

Matt Jones with BNSF said the board’s decision clarified the scope of information that will be required of the railroad and will allow the review process to continue moving forward.