Coal trains public hearing will provide answers

In Our Opinion


The most important thing about democracy is it requires citizen participation to make it work.

Spokane County and Eastern Washington residents have a unique opportunity to do just that on an issue that is slowly rising to the hot-button level: Coal trains. And in that regards, everyone should mark Dec. 4 on their calendars.

That’s the date the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Ecology and other regulatory agencies are holding a public hearing to receive testimony on a proposal to move millions of tons of coal mined in the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming and Montana through our region to four proposed terminals in western Washington, Oregon and on the Columbia River. It’s part of an Environmental Impact Statement scoping period for gathering information running Sept. 23 to Jan. 21, 2013.

Coal is already a contested issue. In the coming months we will hear arguments from an army of proponents and opponents of the mining of the fossil fuel. There are good arguments on either side, but for us the issue right now is transportation and there are questions surrounding the movement of coal, beginning with how much.

Moving coal from the Powder River Basin to western export terminals will increase rail traffic through our area. BNSF Railway CEO Matthew Rose told the Columbian editorial board that eight to 12 and perhaps 12-16 coal-hauling trains could be added per day through Clark County, hauling an estimated 50 million to 100 million tons annually.

A study commissioned by the Western Organization of Resource Councils and performed by a pair of transportation experts presents a different view. Using “publicly released announcements and permit applications by ports and coal companies of facilities on the planning boards,” the study “Heavy Traffic Ahead” concluded moving a projected 75 million tons per year by 2017 to 170 million tons per year by 2022 would equate to 28 to 63 loaded and empty coal trains per day, many of those passing through this region.

Right now Cheney, Spokane and Spokane Valley are seeing about four of 1.25- to 1.5-mile long, trains per day. With 30-35 trains passing through Cheney and 60 through Spokane and the Valley per day, how many more trains are we really talking about?

How will it impact us? In a meeting with the Cheney Free Press editorial board Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder said that city has spent about $40 million in upgrades near rail routes the past few years. Spokane Valley residents already know of the delays experienced there from long trains, as do we in Cheney.

If train traffic is increased by more than Rose’s prediction but less than the WORC’s study estimates that’s still a sizeable amount of traffic. Train opponents claim our rail system is already at capacity, while BNSF points to $100 million in improvements they’ve made on the line from Pasco to Portland, the busiest in their system.

Are we really at capacity? Will BNSF’s improvements be enough? How will the coal traffic affect the movement of local commodities like grain and container trains to and from markets and thus the local economy?

What happens if a coal train derails passing through area cities? How will it be handled? How will these trains impact traffic at crossings, including emergency vehicles?

And there are health concerns surrounding the increase in coal dust and diesel fume particulates.

It’s important the citizen’s voice be heard and comments made on these issues. The fact an EIS hearing is being conducted so far from the proposed export terminals is a unique opportunity for communities to comment on an issue that likely brings more impacts than benefits locally.

Take advantage of it. Go to the Dec. 4 hearing at the Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds from 4-7 p.m. and give your two cents, in writing or verbally. Write to the Corps of Engineers or DOE through Jan. 21.

It’s better to do this now, than try to make changes later.


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