"They are trying to fast-track this with minimal analysis," he said. "That's why they didn't disclose the full purpose of the railroad. The route now points like an arrow to the West Coast."
The prospect of increased coal exports also has sparked interest in Washington state. The director of the Washington Department of Ecology urged federal officials in a letter last week to consider a range of far-reaching impacts from the railroad. That includes train traffic tying up rail crossings, fugitive coal dust and air pollution from locomotives.
"Additional rail being built specifically for coal trains to export coal could affect Washington State resources," Director Ted Sturdevant wrote. "It is imperative that the (Surface Transportation Board) consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts."
The Surface Transportation Board this week said it had accepted the railroad proposal for consideration. An agency spokesman said Thursday that the board will consider the opponents' petition during its review of the railroad.
First proposed in the 1980s, backers of the railroad struggled for years to line up financing until being bought out in 2011 by BNSF, Arch Coal and candy-industry billionaire Forrest Mars Jr.
Last month, the co-owners unveiled a new route for the line, through Colstrip instead of Miles City.
Railroad attorneys wrote in their application that the railroad "has the potential to transport additional coal from the considerable coal resources that are located (in the area) and will service any mines developed in the area."
BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said Thursday the Colstrip route reduces the number of affected landowners, avoids a state fish hatchery and eliminates the need to cross over Interstate 94.
In separate proceedings involving Otter Creek, Montana regulators will host three public meetings next week to establish the scope of the state's environmental review for the mine.
Meetings are scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Broadus, and on Jan. 17 at 2 p.m. in Ashland and at 6 p.m. in Lame Deer.
Surface Transportation Board: http://www.stb.dot.gov
Montana Department of Environmental Quality: http://www.deq.mt.gov