The U.S. Surface Transportation Board on April 17 released for comment a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) for the proposed construction and operation of the Tongue River Railroad, which would haul coal from a new mine planned by railroad co-owner Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI) in the Montana end of the Powder River Basin to an interconnect point with another co-owner, the BNSF Railway.
This Draft EIS analyzes the potential environmental impacts of the Tongue River Railroad Co.’s (TRRC) October 2012 revised application requesting authority to construct and operate a rail line in southeast Montana. In TRRC’s December 2012 supplemental application, it identified its preferred route for the proposed Tongue River Railroad as the 42-mile Colstrip Alternative, which would travel between Colstrip (at a BNSF rail line at the existing Colstrip power plant) and the Ashland/Otter Creek areas of Montana, where Arch Coal’s planned Otter Creek mine would be located. Other mines could also be developed in the same region that could also ship coal over this line.
This railroad project, under prior ownership, went through over 20 years of approvals and appeals of those approvals at the board and its predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission. The October 2012 revamp involves a shorter rail segment that may be easier to approve.
Four cooperating agencies assisted the board in the preparation of the Draft EIS: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service; the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, representing all Montana State agencies.
The draft will be out for 60 days of public comment period, which begins when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues a notice of availability in the Federal Register on April 24. Comments on the Draft EIS must be received or postmarked by June 23. The STB will be hosting ten public meetings to receive comments on the Draft EIS. It will hold two meetings per day in each of the Montana communities of Lame Deer, Ashland, Colstrip, Miles City, and Forsyth.
The draft noted: “TRRC proposes to provide rail service to the proposed Otter Creek Mine near Ashland, MT. TRRC estimates that traffic on the proposed line would consist of approximately 7.4 trains per day to and from the mine (3.7 trains in each direction).”
Said the draft about the potential for rail movements above the 20 million tons per year planned by Arch Coal out of Otter Creek: “Right now, the proposed Otter Creek Mine is the only coal mine that has been planned in the area that the proposed rail line would serve. However, it is possible that additional coal mines could be developed in the area if the proposed rail line is constructed. In addition to the proposed Otter Creek Mine, the Draft EIS considers the environmental impacts of trains moving coal from new mines that could be developed in the future at the Poker Jim Creek–O’Dell Creek and Canyon Creek deposits, which are located near the project area.
“TRRC stated that the average rail traffic would be 7.4 trains per day (3.7 trains in each direction). If additional mines are developed in the project area and if new export terminals in the Pacific Northwest are constructed, then [the STB] predicted that rail traffic could be as high as 18.6 trains per day (for build alternatives going north) or 26.7 trains per day (for build alternatives going south) by the year 2030.”
STB staff considered an expansion in Pacific Northwest coal export capacity as reasonably foreseeable because of proposed terminal construction and expansion. On an annual basis, exports between 0% and 53% of annual coal produced from the proposed Otter Creek Mine and the Poker Jim Creek‒O’Dell Creek and Canyon Creek mines, which could be induced by the development of the proposed rail line, would be expected. Exports would occur under six of the 21 primary sensitivity scenarios; no exports would occur under 15 of these scenarios. The maximum export (53%) would occur if the southern alternatives are developed with high coal production rates and high terminal capacity growth. Tongue River coal exports would be low across all scenarios because other Powder River Basin coals with higher heat content would be more competitive for export. In other words, the same amount of rail traffic would flow from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Northwest if coal export capacity is expanded, with or without the proposed rail line, the STB noted.
Environmental groups, by the way, have been battling to choke off the development of new coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington, with some success. Much of the PRB coal currently headed for West Coast export is railed to British Columbia to be loaded to ship at existing facilities there.