The Tongue River Railroad’s Failed Public Process

* To my readers. Don’t worry about the pessimistic nature of this post. We will still beat the Tongue River Railroad and the Otter Creek coal mine, with or without a fair public process. 

Last week, during a three-day meeting in Lame Deer, Montana, hosted by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) concerning the proposed Tongue River Railroad, I came to the unsettling conclusion that the public process is broken. A system, ostensibly meant to gather the public’s input in order to make good policy decisions, ignores the most important questions: questions of right and wrong, of profit at the expense of people, of justice. Bring those questions up in a meeting and watch people squirm in their seats.

But those are the questions that define the fight over the proposed Tongue River coal train. It’s simple.

Consultation in Lame Deer

View from Deer Medicine Rocks
Rosebud Creek valley looking out from Deer Medicine Rocks. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
The meeting I’m referring to was a Section 106 Consultation meeting that involved tribal nations from across the Great Plains and southeastern Montana landowners. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties and to try to avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects.

To say that southeastern Montana is rich in cultural and historic sites is an understatement. You can’t walk a foot without seeing a place recorded in the oral and written histories of dozens of Tribes. Representatives from the Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota Sioux, Yankton Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Crow Creek Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, Standing Rock, Spirit Lake and Crow were in attendance.Tribal Historic Preservation Officers asked many good questions of the STB, but let me summarize for you.

Q: Does it matter that almost 100% of the directly impacted citizens of southeastern Montana do not want the Tongue River Railroad built? Answer: We are just at the beginning of the process.

Q: Does it matter that digging up the coal will only benefit a few at the expense of the many? Answer: We are just at the beginning of the process.

Q: Does it matter that this coal will exacerbate climate change, destroy aquifers and cultural sites forever and degrade water and air quality? Answer: We are just at the beginning of the process.

Real answers to these questions will never be answered because the Surface Transportation Board, their third-party contractors and the coal companies are indifferent, at best, to the moral questions of the Tongue River Railroad. The methodology used to measure impacts and mitigation has no room for questions of right and wrong. That is irrelevant to the process.

What the Surface Transportation Board should be doing 

I think most citizens accept that our government is supposed to protect individuals from the unreasonable actions of others, especially those with more money, resources, and power. The government must level the playing field. This is to ensure that the interests of the powerful do not trample on the rights, property and lives of the citizens. The government must act as the neutral broker that regulates both the relationship between the individual and the corporation and most importantly, the application of power. It should not act as the agent of industry.

I know, kind of naïve right? But that is standard that our government should be held to, both elected and non-elected representatives, from Senators to Surface Transportation Board staff, and we should demand that they live up to their responsibilities.

Section 106 Site Tour of Tongue River Railroad Route
Rancher Clint McRae addresses Tribal THPO officers about the important cultural and historic sites on his property during the STB Tongue River Railroad site tour. Photo by Beth Raboin.

What about the No-Action Alternative? (i.e. The “coal train to Asia” doesn’t get built option)

All of us who attended the meeting heard the staff of the Surface Transportation Board say numerous times, “the alternative that receives a permit.” Wait a minute, someone said, but there is an “alternative” that is the “No Action” alternative that the STB is required to analyze and consider…right? They quickly backtracked, “Oh yes, there is the no action alternative.” Huh, funny, cause you never really mention that alternative as being a viable option.

BNSF and Tongue River Railroad representatives did not disappoint. They, as usual, sat quiet in a corner of the room checking their phones occasionally but otherwise seemed completely uninterested in the proceedings, besides the short little, “we are excited to be working together” pep talk from BNSF’s Public Affairs guy that is.

They never tell the gathered community, landowners and THPO officers why we should support their coal train. Like Vanessa Braided Hair said in her essay, Why the Otter Creek Coal Mine Will Never be Built, they are confident in our government’s disinterest in questions of right or wrong and the ability of the process to deliver them a permit.

The Amish Farm where the Tongue River Railroad is slated to go through
Amish farmers move hay during a recent wintery day in southeastern Montana. The Tongue River Railroad is slated to go directly between their barn and their house. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky
The railroad company folks don’t have to worry about the government protecting the interests of the many from the few because that isn’t what our government does. In fact, in the case of the Tongue River Railroad, it serves as an agent for them, negotiating with troublesome citizens who are standing in the way of profit. Private greed and interest is put in a tidy package by our own government and sold to the citizens under the non-threatening rubric of “the public good.”

The situation reminds me of a quote by the Cat in Alice in Wonderland, “In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives the March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

The process doesn’t have a memory, but we do (i.e. The Tongue River Railroad Co. has been bad news for over 30 years)

There is no room in the Surface Transportation Board process for memory.  The tribal citizens and ranchers who have been fighting this coal train for over 30 years do remember though. They remember a lot. Just ask them.

Bison Bonebone bed pile
Bison bone pile, dug up by a coal company paid archeologist, exposed to the elements for 1 year on the Crow Reservation – photo by Mike Scott
They remember our government with the support of some environmental groups trading the Otter Creek coal tracts in exchange for not developing a gold mine outside of Yellowstone National Park. They remember our government rubber-stamping environmental studies done by industry.  They remember rock art and cultural sites being blown up by coal companies in other mines. They remember survey crews trespassing on their property.  They remember land men coming to their doors threatening condemnation. They remember receiving letters threatening legal action from the Tongue River Railroad Co. They remember eagles getting knocked out of the sky by survey helicopters.

As Jeannie Alderson, a Tongue River rancher said at a recent public hearing,

“The coal companies always tell you what they are going to bring, but they never tell you what they will take away.”

Hundreds of generations of Native Americans have been protecting this land and this is the second generation of ranchers that are fighting this coal train. If I was a betting person, I know which side I’d put my money on.

Here’s something that the Surface Transportation Board staff should consider if they haven’t already. People in Montana have spent decades of their lives fighting this ill-conceived railroad. A railroad that was a bad idea when they first proposed it and is a bad idea now. They have sacrificed their health, time with their friends and family and experienced increased stress worrying that their livelihoods, history, culture and environment will be damaged irreversibly.

And yet, the STB is asking them to participate in another decade long process because Arch Coal’s stocks are in the tank and they need to look like they are expanding for their investors.  Tribes and landowners are being asked to participate in the same process that has never worked for them or treated them as equal to the railroad.

If you are opposed to the project entirely, it is interpreted as a refusal to participate in their process. To them, it is irrational and so they trivialize those who criticize the process or say no from outside the power structure.

If the public process worked, this proposal would have been dead and buried long ago.

The process asks the wrong questions of the wrong people (i.e. the people of southeastern Montana are the real experts)

We are told over and over that the process will lead to the best decision for everyone, the public and the coal companies. One big happy family. How sweet.

Conrad Fisher, Northern Cheyenne Tribe's THPO Officer
Conrad Fisher, Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer testifies at the Otter Creek coal mine scoping hearings last winter. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky
At least, this is what the experts, who are not from southeastern Montana, tell us. Apparently the experts will be able to tell us how “important” and “unique” a tribal cultural site is and whether or not it should be protected; how a coal train will impact cattle operations and if the level of damage is “acceptable”; how the coal mine will impact the Tongue River and if that impact is “acceptable”; and how the combined projects will impact peoples lives and if that impact is “tolerable.”

I will be the first to admit that the Surface Transportation Board staff and the experts they have hired know some things. In fact, they know a lot and they also seem like very nice people. People who, on some level, probably know that what is happening is wrong. But their personal views on this matter are irrelevant to what they are paid to produce.

How the experts report what they develop for the EIS will use neither common sense nor the experiences of the people who have lived in the valleys their whole life and whose ancestors lived there as well. A non-rancher doesn’t understand why and how cattle are moved. A non-Cheyenne doesn’t understand why the Greenleaf area is important.

We are told through the process that the experts know best. Without anyone actually saying so, the citizen is eliminated as a participant.  We are there to be managed, to be dealt with, another problem that needs to be solved, possibly consulted, but ultimately ignored.

The questions that we need to answer (i.e. Is this right?) 

They refuse to ask the question, is it right, is it moral, is it ethical for a private corporation to seize Montanan’s private property, destroy sacred cultural sites of the tribal nations, exacerbate climate change, damage important water resources for wildlife, crop production and livestock, wildlife habitat and air quality?

Not only do they refuse to ask the question, they refuse to admit the question is worth asking. The public process doesn’t allow for moral balance, experiential knowledge, common sense, memory or a social view of the world. Instead, we watch as these important human values wither away.

What is encouraged to flourish is competitiveness, amorality and an extreme aggressiveness when questioned or criticized.  Above all, what is encouraged is a growth of an undisciplined corporate self-interest.

What Voice Do We Have? 

The people of southeastern Montana, those most directly impacted, say no. No, we don’t want the Tongue River Railroad, the Otter Creek coal mine or your process.

Surface Transportation Board staff tell us it isn’t your decision; that we need to trust the process. A process without memory or morality.

The people ask, whose decision is it? They tell us, it is the decision of three unelected political appointees in Washington D.C. who have never been to the Tongue River Valley. They have never ranched. They have never felt the way the land in southeastern Montana digs in to your soul. They have never experienced the epic beauty of the Tongue River and Otter Creek Valleys.

But, they tell us, don’t worry. We’ll relay your concerns to them and they will be reflected in a 2,000 page Environmental Impact Statement.

That makes all of us out here sleep better at night.

For more background on the Tongue River railroad, please see my series on the Tongue River railroad public hearings at

For additional reading on the financial backers of the Tongue River Railroad, please see “Warren Buffett’s Coal Problem,” by Marc Gunther.