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New route picked for planned Montana coal railroad

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm •  Published: December 17, 2012

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Owners of a railroad that would open Montana's coal fields to increased mining offered a new route for the disputed line on Monday, which backers said would be shorter and affect fewer landowners.

A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway Co. said the 42-mile new route would link up with an existing rail line in Colstrip to reach a proposed coal mine near Ashland. That's down from 83 miles under the owners' prior preferred route through Miles City.

It also would avoid a state fish hatchery in Miles City that had emerged as a potential obstacle to approval. The price tag dropped from previous estimates of $490 million to roughly $416 million, spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said.

But landowners and conservation groups have fought the project for decades, and it's unlikely the changes will fully satisfy the railroad's critics.

The long-stalled railroad was bought last year by BNSF Railway, Arch Coal Inc. and billionaire Forrest Mars Jr., following decades of delays due to court challenges and financing hurdles.

It's intended to carry up to 20 million tons of coal annually from Arch's proposed Otter Creek mine to West Coast ports, where the fuel would be loaded onto ships for export to Asia.

Approval from the Surface Transportation Board is needed before construction could begin. A revised application for the project was submitted to the board on Monday, Lundsberg said.

An STB spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The revised application had not been posted to the agency's website late Monday.

The STB held public meetings on the proposed railroad in November, and recently extended the initial public comment period on the proposal until Jan. 11.

The Colstrip route had been considered in the past, but was rejected due to the steeper grades that trains would have to surmount to move loads out of the coal-rich Powder River Basin along the Montana-Wyoming border. Under the STB's environmental review process, the Colstrip route will be one of several alternative alignments considered.

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