Opinion: On Tongue River Railroad, enough is enough

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The Tongue River Railroad would cross the Tongue River near here, a little south of Ashland, if the railroad’s preferred route were chosen.

On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, the Tongue River Railroad Co. asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to indefinitely freeze its permit application for the proposed Tongue River Railroad.

If permitted, the railroad would condemn up to 90 miles of working family farm and ranchland in southeastern Montana to build a new rail line to ship coal from the proposed Otter Creek coal mine to proposed Pacific Northwest coal export facilities and then on to Asia.

As landowners whose property could be condemned by the rail line, you might think we’d be happy to see the permit application frozen. The truth, though, is that we and our neighbors have faced the threat of condemnation by this project for 38 years. An indefinite suspension will keep us in limbo even longer. As long as this project remains in suspended animation, so will our plans for the future.

Enough is enough. Instead of dangling eminent domain over our properties for an untold number of years to come, it’s time to put this thing to bed and deny the railroad’s permit.

A single for-profit corporation shouldn’t have the power to condemn working family ranches just to haul coal to China. Period. We make a living off this land like our grandparents before us and hopefully our grandchildren after us. That shouldn’t be taken away just so somebody else can turn a buck.

Even if the railroad is never permitted, just the threat of condemnation directly damages our ranching operations. That threat shouldn’t be allowed to linger indefinitely. It forces us to delay or abandon important improvements.

For years, we have delayed building water pipelines, wells, irrigation systems, fence networks and more out of concern that these projects could be wiped out by the railroad. The ever-shifting route of the proposal puts literally dozens of ranches like ours in limbo.

Ranching isn’t an easy business. We need to be efficient to compete in the global market. Built or unbuilt, by interfering with our property, this railroad is a direct threat to southeastern Montana’s agricultural economy and way of life.

The Tongue River Railroad Co.’s move to freeze its application comes at a time when domestic coal consumption is declining, Asian coal prices are half of what they were four years ago, and many financial analysts expect Arch Coal, the sole owner of the proposed Otter Creek coal mine, to declare bankruptcy in January.

One of the main reasons the railroad company gave when asking for this delay was weak coal markets that didn’t justify construction of the railroad. The government’s draft environmental impact statement for the Tongue River Railroad gave the proposed Otter Creek coal mine a net negative value, meaning it would lose money instead of make money.

If there’s no economic reason to build the railroad, they just shouldn’t do it.
It’s clear that Tongue River Railroad Co. is working the system at landowners’ expense, holding condemnation over our heads on the long odds that coal markets might eventually improve and Arch Coal’s financial situation might eventually pick up.

Speculation and playing games with our livelihoods just isn’t right.

It’s not fair to profit from taking other folks’ land against their will. And out-of-state corporations especially shouldn’t be able to threaten private property rights on pure speculation. With no market, the Tongue River Railroad is a project in search of a purpose.

After 38 years of threatening our way of life, it’s time for the Surface Transportation Board to just say no.

Landowners Mark Fix and Clint McRae both face potential condemnation by the Tongue River Railroad. This opinion piece was also signed by impacted landowners Joe and Helen Curran, Levi Hochstetler, Kelly Radue, Jay Murnion, David Borntreger, and Hank and Kitte Coffin.

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