No coal train across the plains

David Melmer
3/14/01

RAPID CITY, S.D. - One hundred fifty years ago the steel rails were laid and trains brought people to the land of the Lakota, Crow, Arapaho, Kiowa and Cheyenne, with devastating results.

Wars between the white settlers and American Indians were fought because the railroads brought the settlers to the Great Plains and cut through the areas called home by various tribes. Many tribes defended their homelands and took up arms against the settlers and U.S. military. Red Cloud's war ensued in the Powder River and Big Horn area of Wyoming.

In 2001, the two cultures that historically clashed so violently are brought together to work against a proposed new rail line that would cut through South Dakota, especially west of the Missouri River, which by the 1851 and 1858 treaties was left as the land of the Lakota.

Formation of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance was prompted by the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad's desire to bring coal from the Powder River area of Wyoming across South Dakota into Minnesota.

The $1.4 billion project to add or improve more than 1,000 miles of track is labeled as the largest railroad expansion in a century.

At a recent gathering of the alliance, a visitor would never have guessed there had been problems between the two cultures. The focus was on stopping the new railroad from doing what the rails did in the mid-19th century.

The state of South Dakota, organizations from east of the Missouri River and from the west, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Mayo Clinic, the city of Rochester, Minn., and many other Minnesota towns oppose the new rail line.

Although it appears the opposition is strong, the federal Transportation and Safety Board must approve the project, and the alliances are taking no chances by letting up on the heat. It is in good company. Some 6,500 groups and individuals submitted comments to be entered into the draft environmental impact statement, closed for further comment March 6.

"I never thought I would see cowboys and Indians together. It touches my soul. This is a battle for minds and hearts, also for economics and justice," said Dorothy Butler, a member of the South Dakota Civil Rights committee.

Along with justice and economics, the environment is a major reason for opposing the railroad expansion. Pat Spears of Intertribal Council on Utility Policy said this railroad expansion would lead to increased emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. More coal would be burned by power plants.

"The United States is the leader in CO2 emissions from coal. If people don't know about the greenhouse effect and global warming, they don't get out much," he said.

He said there were other methods to produce energy that are renewable.

Major support in opposing the rail project came from the federal government. Ken Parr, of the Bureau of Reclamation said his agency opposes the project and recommended no action to the Transportation and Safety Board. The BOR position is based on opposition to the rail line going through the Angostura Irrigation District, which is opposed to the project.

However, Parr said if the board approves the project, his agency has no alternative but to issue the permit.

The comment period ended and it is now up the board to review all of the material and make a decision. Should it approve the project, opponents indicated litigation would be the next step.

A factor that must be considered is DM&E's motivation for pushing the project, other than moving coal. Dwight Adams of Brookings, long active in the state Republican party, said DM&E is financially strapped and if the project is approved, it would give the railroad something to sell. At the moment, he said the DM&E does not have a salable commodity, "all they have is equipment."

He said it was questionable if the DM&E could raise the $1.4 billion needed to build the project. He said the company is owned by British Labor unions and he knows the owners have given strong messages to sell.

If completed, the DM&E projects that 37 trains, 100 cars plus in length, will travel the rails per day. Other trains designated for hauling agricultural and other goods would add to the traffic, more than DM&E claims, Adams said.

John Apitz, an attorney representing DM&E, told members of the House Transportation Committee the railroad planned to continue transporting at least as much agricultural product as it always had.

"Agricultural products are profitable to haul. We are not about to stop that," Apitz said.

The DM&E can break even if it moved 14 trains a day across the line, but a new line could handle as many as 37 trains per day. At 14 trains per day, that would be 40 million tons of coal annually.

More than a year ago, the company was engaged in talks with the various tribes in the state. Harvey Whitewoman, Pine Ridge, said the Oglala Sioux Tribe was offered an 1880s train through the reservation if it would approve the project. Whitewoman said the Oglalas oppose the project.

Many tribes from Minnesota to Wyoming are involved in the process, even some which only have cultural ties to the area and no land in the path of the proposed line. The new line would not actually cross any of the reservations, but would come in close proximity to them. It will take approval of seven of some 32 tribes involved to lend the tribal approval to the project. It is not known how many will directly oppose or support the project because some tribes are located as far away as Oklahoma.

At this time it appears only one city in South Dakota supports the project. Huron would become the new headquarters for the company and Brookings has negotiated an alternative route around the community.

It could be three to four months before the STB makes its decision.

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