November 22, 2012 | Vol. 116 -- No. 31

Coal forum creates more questions

Cheney residents, others urged to provide testimony on train traffic impacts

A forum at the Cheney Library last Wednesday night to provide information on the issue of coal trains rumbling through Cheney likely produced more questions than answers and generated discussion over more than just increased rail traffic through the city.

For some present, the issue was more than just the trains, which if five export terminals are built in western Washington and Oregon and along the Columbia River could multiply the number of trains through the area from the 1-4 that currently come through town daily. The issue was whether coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana should be mined and exported at all.

Forum organizer Art Hathaway noted that coal shipments are currently going to Vancouver, B.C. en route to China. He asked audience members if they knew which way the wind blows.

“We’re downwinders,” Hathaway said. “All of the stuff we are shipping over to them is coming back to us in a slightly different form. It should be a concern to you. I know it is to me.”

Sierra Club volunteer Laura Ackerman followed a video with a presentation about a upcoming scooping hearing Dec. 4 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Ecology and other agencies in Spokane. Ackerman, who lives on a Cheney-area farm and whose kids attend Cheney schools, said she got involved over concerns about health risks to her family and the potential transportation issues presented from trains passing through Cheney.

“One of the reasons I got involved in this campaign was simply my children,” she said.

While Ackerman and Hathaway both admitted their main goal was to keep the Powder River Basin coal in the ground, potentially by preventing construction of the export terminals, most of the information presented and discussed centered on the potential increase in train traffic and its impacts.

One of the unknowns is how many trains will be coming through the Spokane region daily. That figure depends on how much coal is extracted in the Powder River Basin, with estimates ranging from 75 million tons to 170 million tons as reported in a study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils to 50 million to 100 million tons as reported by the Energy Policy Research Foundation.

That could lead to a daily increases ranging from four to 12 trains to 28 to 63 of the approximately 1.5-mile long shipments. With about 35 trains per day passing through Cheney, there is potential for significant impacts.

“Some of us do have problems now,” one audience member said.

Trains speed through town, noise from horns and long delays at crossings have been an issue in the city and several audience members noted this. Ackerman also added the existence of potential health impacts from coal dust and increased diesel fumes, but admitted that BNSF is taking steps to mitigate the diesel issue.

A Sept. 11 column by Association of Washington Business president Don Brunell state the state DOE ranks locomotives as one of the smallest contributors to emissions among the 19 sources it tracks. In the same column, BNSF CEO Matthew Rose said the railroad plans to spend $1.1 billion on energy-efficient locomotives expected to further reduce emissions by 60-70 percent.

Another audience member noted that they had heard BNSF would add another line, and Ackerman said that was possible. BNSF has already made $100 million in upgrades to the busiest line in their system, Pasco to Portland.

Other questions centered on impacts to the local economy from increases in traffic. Ackerman noted BNSF officials have said that the coal trains would have the right of way over trains carrying other cargo.

Ackerman stressed the importance of providing testimony during the scoping period, which runs Sept. 23 to Jan. 21, 2013. She urged the audience to express their concerns during this time and at the Dec. 4 hearing, which runs 4-7 p.m. at the Interstate Fairgrounds.

Spokane is the only city this far east along the train route to have an impact meeting, Ackerman said, noting the Sierra Club and other concerned groups worked to get the Army Corps to come here.

“They didn’t have to go outside the west side locations,” she said. “All of the rail traffic has to come through Spokane. There is no other way around it.”

Ackerman urged people submitting testimony to state their needs about having questions on impacts addressed rather than stating dislikes, i.e. “I want to know about coal dust impacts.” She said to make sure to use the word “scope” in the comments, and to submit them in a fashion similar to the famous phrase about Chicago voting habits.

“Scoping is the same way,” she said. “Do it early and do it often.”

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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