RICHLAND, Wash. – A critical assessment of industry’s plans to haul coal through the Northwest warns that huge increases in train traffic could tie up existing rail lines, spew coal dust across several states and force communities to help cover billions of dollars in improvements.
Proposals to export coal from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia could move about 170 million tons of coal a year through the Pacific Northwest. That’s according to a study released by conservation group Western Organization of Resource Councils.
The fuel would come primarily from Montana and Wyoming, a 1,500-mile haul. The new report claims about 60 coal trains a day would pass through Billings and Spokane, Wash.
“This, make no mistake about it, is a huge, huge increase volume, like we’ve never seen before in this part of the world,” says Terry Whiteside, who helped write the report.
The report says traffic increases could cause grain and shipping containers to be delayed or rerouted to California.
The study focused on Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad as the main company transporting coal. Sueann Lundsberg works with the railroad. She disagrees with the study’s focus on her company’s rail line through Spokane and Billings.
Lundsberg says other railroads, like Union Pacific, will also transport coal. That means Burlington Northern’s lines will not be that congested through Pacific Northwest cities. Lundsberg says the company also will upgrade lines as needed.
“Freight traffic will increase with or without coal export, and you’ve seen in the past that railroads have been able to accommodate that growth by the record capital investments we’ve made and will continue to make those,” Lundsberg says.
(Hover over markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)
But people living next to the railroad would prefer fewer trains on the rail lines. Sonny Meehan lives in Whatcom County, Wash., near the Canadian border. His home is about 200 yards from the railroad.
“The noise pollution is going to render my home, I think, unlivable. And then in that regard, I won’t be able to sell my home. I won’t be able to live in my home,” Meehan says.
Meehan also worries about health effects from increased coal train traffic, among other problems. He’s concerned about a gas line that runs parallel to the railroad and diesel particulate matter, after being diagnosed with asthma earlier this year.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils study says major rail lines through the Columbia River Gorge and Stevens Pass in Washington are already near capacity. Burlington Northern says that’s not true.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report. Sources for this story came from the Public Insight Network. To learn how you can become a source, click here.)
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