USA - Tribal members, ranchers tell regulators to spike Tongue River railroad project

Date of publication: 
9 June 2015

About 25 people gathered Wednesday to hear and talk about why they don’t want federal regulators to approve the Tongue River Railroad.

Those who would be neighbors of what could become the country’s largest coal mine near Ashland gave an earful Monday to federal regulators who are reviewing plans for the railroad tied to it.

Ranchers and Northern Cheyenne tribal members spoke out against the proposed Tongue River Railroad during the first of five days of public hearings, saying the line would trample their land and questioning the environmental analysis completed by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

No one spoke in support of the project during the evening hearing in Ashland.

“We want the quiet, we want the peace, we want the clean air, we want the clean water,” said Northern Cheyenne member Kitte Coffin. “And we’re not going to give it up without a fight.”

The 42-mile rail line would carry coal from the proposed Otter Creek mine to U.S. markets and to West Coast ports for shipping overseas. Arch Coal bought rights to the mine and would co-own the railroad with BNSF Railway Co., and Burlington Northern Sante Fe and candy industry billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.

“The people here are concerned that we can’t take on a big corporation because we don’t have the resources,” said Mildred Red Cherries.

A lengthy draft environmental impact statement was released earlier this year, which includes 11 alternative routes for the railroad.

Ranchers whose land could be taken or cut up by the line said the analysis overlooked important factors such as fire management and would limit access to their property.

Some, including famed cowboy poet Wallace McRae, accused regulators of serving the interests of the companies, not the people. As many as nine miles of his land sits on proposed portions of the railroad.

“People that are employed by two billionaires that are promoting this railroad don’t feel any need to be here,” McRae said, referring to Mars and BNSF owner Warren Buffett. “But they are being represented, even though they aren’t here. They are being represented by people from Washington, D.C., who have no concept whatsoever of Northern Cheyenne culture, of Amish culture, of the code of the west.”

BNSF spokesman Matt Jones spoke briefly, saying the company would be attending each of the public comment meetings this week.

Wearing a red T-shirt with “Save Otter Creek” printed in giant letters from her neck to her navel, Vanessa Braided Hair decried the environmental impacts of fossil fuels and recounted the history of exploitation of Indian Country.

“Why would we trust Arch Coal? Why would we trust BNSF? Why would we trust any of you?” she said.

When a moderator flipped a card to signal her time to speak was almost up, Braided Hair said, “I don’t care if I have 30 seconds left. We’re on my reservation, and you’re going to listen to me.”

Additional hearing will be held in Miles City on Tuesday, Colstrip on Wednesday, Lame Deer on Thursday and Forsyth on Friday.

The draft environmental impact statement, along with details for attending public hearings or submitting written comments, can be viewed at