COLSTRIP, Mont. — David Borntreger and his family moved from Missouri to a remote corner of southeastern Montana in 1997 to escape the increasing pressures of the modern world.
Borntreger, his brother, Levi, and their families are members of a small Amish settlement about 120 miles east of Billings.
They raise cattle and sheep on their farm along the banks of the Tongue River. Their children attend school in two small schoolhouses. The Amish don’t use electricity, so they construct their buildings without the aid of power tools, and they work the land with horse-drawn implements.
“We came west because it’s not as thickly populated,” David Borntreger said. “Besides having a liking to go to the West, we thought it would be a good opportunity here to have our children grow up on agriculture land. We were hoping we could have a lifestyle from agriculture.”
Now that simple lifestyle is threatened by a proposed railroad owned by a coal giant and two of the world’s wealthiest men. The proposed line would bisect their land and cause immeasurable disruption to farm and ranching operations, the Borntregers said.
The proposed Tongue River Railroad would open Montana’s vast Otter Creek Coal Tracts — located some 15 miles to the south of the Borntregers’ farm — to strip mining.
According to the project’s supporters, the railroad would haul an estimated 20 million tons of coal annually from Arch Coal Inc.’s planned mine near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation to Midwest power plants.
The Tongue River Railroad Co. is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway Co., Arch Coal and billionaire candy bar magnet Forrest Mars Jr.
Mars, a landowner along one of the previous Tongue River routes, bought a third of the railroad in 2011 after fighting it for years. The proposed route that once crossed his land is now off the table.
Critics say domestic demand for coal is dwindling, and they fear the newest proposal, called the “Colstrip Alternative,” is aimed at shipping Otter Creek coal to export terminals on the West Coast bound for Asian markets. Arch Coal owns the Otter Creek coal leases, one-third of the railroad and 38 percent of a proposed Longview, Ore., coal export terminal.
BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said the Colstrip Alternative is now the railroad company’s preferred route because it’s shorter and would have less of an impact on the Tongue River Valley and would affect fewer landowners.
Lundsberg said she couldn’t comment on the destination for Otter Creek coal because the railroad doesn’t decide where freight goes.
“That’s a decision that is made by the company who is shipping the coal,” Lundsberg said.
In this case that company is Arch Coal, one of the railroad’s co-owners. Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link referred questions to Lundsberg.
Landowners along the route could face condemnation if the plan is approved, but Lundsberg said it’s premature to talk about eminent domain.
Nonetheless, landowners are concerned about the future of their property.
“I don’t think we ought to sacrifice my ground or my neighbors’ ground so some corporation can make a profit by shipping coal to Asia,” said Clint McRae, one of the Borntregers’ neighbors.
McRae’s great-grandfather homestead the valley 135 years ago, and the McRaes have been fighting the railroad for more than 30 years. The latest proposal would cross approximately nine miles of McRae’s ranch, which he said would make it difficult and costly to move cattle and fight fires. Last summer a wildfire burned more than 200,000 acres in Rosebud and Powder River counties, including nearly 8,000 acres of McRae’s ranch.
“We lost a lot of ground last year with that fire,” McRae said. “We can’t cross railroad tracks with a firefighting engine. If we can’t get across those tracks, we’re going to lose a lot more.”
The federal Surface Transportation Board is conducting an environmental review of the proposed railroad. Last fall, the agency held 10 public “scoping” meetings to provide information on the project and to solicit public comments. The Borntregers said at the time of the meetings they were unaware the company planned to cross their land. They received a letter from a surveying company a month after the final meeting that contained an aerial photo of their property. A red line on the photo shows the proposed Colstrip Alternative rail route less than 100 feet from Levi Borntreger’s back door.
“I was at that meeting, and at the time they had the railroad drawing showing it went right on past here,” Levi Borntreger said. “After the meeting, we got a letter from the surveyors showing it going right through my hay barn. We can’t live that close to a railroad.”
The Borntregers said one of their biggest concerns is the impact the railroad and the upstream coal mines would have on the Tongue River. They rely on clean water from the river to irrigate their crops. They harvest ice from the river in the winter that they sometimes use as late into the year as September.
Salt water from upstream coal bed methane drilling has already degraded their crops, David Borntreger said.
“If they put in that coal mine, it’s going to contaminate the Tongue River even more,” he said. “If we don’t have irrigation, we’re dry farmers. We’d get maybe one crop of hay a year. With irrigating, we get up to seven ton per acre.”
McRae said he noticed the Colstrip Alternative on a map the STB provided to the public at one of the public meetings last fall, but he said the map wasn’t detailed enough for him to be able to provide any substantive comments on the proposed route. At that time, the Colstrip Alternative wasn’t designated as the company’s preferred alternative.
According to Lundsberg, on Dec. 17 — after the last scoping meeting —the railroad filed a revised permit application with the STB designating the Colstrip Alternative as the preferred route.
McRae said the railroad must have known at the time of the September scoping meetings that the Colstrip Alternative was to be the preferred alternative.
“We started getting these maps a few weeks after the scoping hearing showing our property line and the proposed rail line,” McRae said. “This is information they should have given us prior to those scoping hearings. My neighbor and I had no idea this is what they were planning.”
Lundsberg said the STB has been studying the Colstrip Alternative since the original proposal in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until Dec. 17 that the Tongue River Railroad filed a revised application with the STB identifying that route as railroad’s preferred route.
“Those maps have always been available at the STB’s website,” Lundsberg said.
The Borntregers point out that they don’t have access to any websites. They don’t have or use electricity, much less computers and the Internet. The only communication they have with the outside world is a single community telephone in a shack at the end of a long dirt driveway leading into their property.
“With the lifestyle we live, we have no need for a phone in the home,” Levi Borntreger said. “I go out there maybe twice a week to check and see if there are any messages on the voice mail.”
David Borntreger said the land they have now is sufficient to support the Amish families’ simple lifestyle. If the railroad is built, that would change.
“It would be different if the track was here and then we moved to it,” David said. “We moved to this area for the peace and quiet. That will all change if this railroad comes.”
Lundsberg said it’s too early in the process to know the precise routing of any of the proposed routes.
“The routing is subject to change based on survey and engineering work that is required as part of the environmental process,” Lundsberg said.
The Surface Transportation Board is reviewing the input it received during the scoping process and will issue a Final Scope of Study once it is completed.