The Tongue River Railroad’s “Budget Crunch”

During the 2011 Exxon oil spill on the Yellowstone River, I was simultaneously told by our public health officials and Exxon that the oil covering my farm was not dangerous to my health but I should stay away from the oil. Two days after the spill I went to the hospital with nausea, headache, fatigue, dizziness and all that good stuff that comes along with inhaling hydrocarbons. When coal mines use explosives to loosen up coal seams in coal mines, sometimes a nitric oxide orange cloud forms. They tell residents that this cloud is not poisonous but make sure to stay inside. Government and corporations do this a lot. It is the epitome of Orwellian double speak. Make a statement with the message that you want the public to hear (“It’s safe”) and then immediately negate that to cover your bases (“but stay away from it”).

How does this relate to the Tongue River Railroad?

A couple of weeks ago, I heard that the draft EIS for the Tongue River Railroad was delayed so I called the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to confirm. The staff told me over the phone, verbatim, that “the Tongue River Railroad Company has asked us to defer work on the draft EIS due to a budget crunch.” The definition of defer is “to put off (an action or event) to a later time; postpone.” The definition of a budget crunch is “a situation that arises because of a shortage of money.” Ok, got it. The Tongue River Railroad company (TRRC) is delaying work on the draft EIS because they don’t have enough money to finish the draft EIS on the original timeline. I don’t think that there are too many ways to interpret that statement. But ever since the Great Falls Tribune reported that the railroad study would be delayed until 2014 due to the budget crunch, both the STB and TRRC have been back pedaling trying to explain that yes, there is a delay and yes, it is due to budget issues and yes, some work is being postponed but no, nothing has changed and no, it isn’t because TRRC doesn’t have enough money and no, the work isn’t stopping. Well, what is it? It can’t be both.

Don’t misapprehend me

Today, on the Section 106 consultation call (if you don’t know what Section 106 is, google it) David Coburn, the attorney representing TRRC stated that there is, “No question about TRR financing or commitment to the project. I don’t want this to become a misapprehension of people on the call.” I found this statement amusing since TRRC has been trying to get this rail line built for about 30 years. I don’t think the revised timeline shows a lack of commitment but it does show a lack of financing, market and support. They’ve spent 30 years wasting people’s time, money and energy, 30 years of coming up with various schemes to get it built and 30 years of this project hanging over the heads of the people who care about the Tongue River valley. But don’t misapprehend me, David, I believe the commitment is there, especially among the backers of this project. I’m sure it’s easy to support a project when you don’t have to deal with any of the direct environmental, social or cultural impacts. I often think about the how many hours people have spent fighting this railroad and how their lives may have been different if they didn’t have this hanging over their heads for 30 years. Who knows how their lives would be different. Maybe less stress, less heart attacks, maybe more children…who knows? I asked a friend who has fought this railroad for 30 years how much time he thought he had spent reading documents, going to public hearings, writing comments, worrying, talking to neighbors, driving to meetings etc. He laughed. I think he probably had to laugh or otherwise he might cry.

Where does that leave us?

This is where I’m going to lose some of you folks who aren’t into the details of this project but I hope that those of you who were on the Section 106 call will keep reading because I think we all left feeling a little confused. I have a couple of questions that would be nice to have answered by the STB. If you have questions you’d like answered shoot me an email or post a comment.  It might be worth having Q & A call with the folks at the STB.
  • What exact work is being delayed till 2014? And I don’t mean this in a vague way that would lead to an answer like, “well, some of the writing of the EIS is delayed.” I would like a detailed list of the exact activities of staff from STB and ICF International that is not going to happen until 2014.
  • If the TRRC has the money like they say they do, why don’t they increase the budget and get it done on the original timeline? Why wait till 2014? It seems that the three owners of TRRC, (owned by billionaire Forrest Mars, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Arch Coal) could scrape up the cash to finish it.
  • What was the budget for the development of the draft EIS and what is the new budget? When will we know when TRRC has the money for it?
  • Does the TRRC pick up all costs for this work or are taxpayers paying for some of it? On the Section 106 call today, an STB staffer said, “we would love to do another face to face meeting but the budget is not there.” Then she said she was talking about the federal budget. Does this mean that STB has to pay for their own expenses when they are working on TRR studies? I thought the railroad company was paying for all expenses associated with the EIS and Section 106 process.
  • How, in detail, is the STB coordinating work with the State of Montana on the cultural and environmental studies in the Otter Creek valley? The Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek coal mine are the same project even though they are being permitted by separate agencies.
  • During the in-person Section 106 meeting, the Tribes present stated they wanted to do a TCP study of the entire area. Is this option still on the table?

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