BILLINGS, Montana — The Northern Cheyenne tribe is planning additional investigations of cultural sites along the path of a proposed railroad that would open new areas of southeastern Montana to large-scale coal mining.
Tribal Councilmember Conrad Fisher said elders will revisit areas previously surveyed by contractors for the Surface Transportation Board as the agency considers the Tongue River Railroad.
Fisher says the tribe wants to ensure sacred and important sites are protected.
"We want to make sure we have a correct interpretation" of cultural sites, he said.
The $403 million rail line is proposed by BNSF Railway, Arch Coal and candy industry billionaire Forrest Mars Jr. Its sponsors want the railroad to run from Colstrip to Ashland, but the Surface Transportation Board has not yet finalized a route.
It would provide access to the proposed Otter Creek coal mine near the Wyoming-Montana border. The mine and railroad are being built in part to tap into a growing market for coal in Asia.
BNSF spokesman Matt Jones said the railroad had confidence in previous survey work done by government contractors. Jones said more detailed surveys will be conducted once a route for the line is chosen, and any cultural sites identified will be protected.
But Colstrip-area landowners and members of other tribes with ties to the area say the transportation board's contractors misinterpreted the significance of some cultural sites and overlooked others during their visits to the area in 2014.
Chris Finley, a retired National Park Service archaeologist working for landowners and the Sierra Club, said he re-surveyed the area and determined the contractor's work was poorly done.
The transportation board has had some version of the railroad before it since 1979.
In a recent letter to an attorney for Colstrip landowners, transportation board environmental director Victoria Rutson said Finley's findings would be considered as it prepares a final study of the railroad.
In May, the board released a draft study of the railroad's potential environmental impacts that found it could have minor to highly adverse impacts on transportation, climate change, noise, water and historical resources.
Fisher said the Northern Cheyenne tribe was interested in talking further with Finley as it conducts its own work.
"We have no dispute with Finley's findings. But rather, it's up to the Surface Transportation Board to consider whether or not this new evidence is significant enough for them to add for their consideration," he said.