Cheney Free Press -


Beyond Coal hosts Cheney meeting on coal and oil trains


Paul Delaney

Over 40 trains, like this one at the Mullinix Road crossing, pass through Cheney daily, including 1-2 oil trains and 4-plus coal trains. If estimates are correct, by 2023 there could be over 80 coal and oil trains rumbling through the city daily.

The issue of increased coal - and now oil - train traffic through Cheney is back.

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign is holding a public meeting Wednesday morning, April 16, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. to present new information on coal and oil traffic through the region. The meeting takes place at the Cheney Library's resource room, and features Terry Whiteside, one of the author's of a 2012 report, "Heavy Traffic Ahead," detailing the impacts increased coal shipments from Montana's Powder River Basin will have on four Pacific Northwest states.

Whiteside, who has over 30 years experience in transportation, has updated the 2012 report, now titled "Heavy Traffic Still Ahead." Under four scenarios ranging from 74 million tons mined per year by 2018 to 170 million tons per year by 2023, Whiteside estimates the region could see 27 to 36 trains daily, loaded and unloaded, by 2018 and 47 to 63 trains daily by 2023.

Whiteside also estimates the region could see 22 daily trains transporting oil from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota. By contrast, Gus Melonas, Burlington Northern Santa Fe public affairs director for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Canada, said of the 40-plus trains now rolling through Cheney daily, 1-2 are oil trains while four or so are coal trains.

Beyond Coal associate organizing representative Jace Bylenga said Whiteside's updated report is one reason the Sierra Club is holding the April 16 meeting. Another is to keep the public's attention focused on impact studies being done on three proposed export terminals, especially the one at Boardman, Ore. which is not going through as robust an environmental review as Washington's.

"We're trying to make sure the costs aren't externalized onto the public," Bylenga said.

Bylenga said increased traffic will create issues at at-grade crossings as well as more burning of diesel fuel, which he said is a carcinogen. Additionally, some coal falls off the cars en route, as much as 500 pounds, and Bylenga claimed coal has turned up in local waterways.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the impacts of the proposed facilities, but is limiting its scope to the facilities themselves. Bylenga said the state Department of Ecology's SEPA review is going further to include impacts to local communities and impacts to the climate from coal burning.

"That's precedence setting," Bylenga said. "A study like that has never been done before."

Councilman John Taves said most complaints in Cheney center around train horns, adding the city and BNSF are in discussions about how best to solve problems at the five at-grade crossings. But Taves, who is acting as a private citizen in assisting with the April 16 meeting, is worried about the explosiveness of Bakken crude oil.

According to a March 29 Associated Press story, Bakken light, sweet crude, has higher amounts of natural gases and other volatile components than other crude oils. Unlike other hazardous materials, crude oil is not refined prior to transport, and the volatility of Bakken crude has been cited in explosions and fires stemming from train derailments in Alabama, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada where 47 people were killed last July.

Taves is also uneasy about coal and oil shipments displacing transportation of other commodities, such as grain. It's all about supply and demand, he added.

"The more people are shipping, the more a shipper could demand higher prices," Taves said. "I think oil and coal shipments carry more value than grain."

According to a news release, BNSF is spending $4.3 billion in capital investments to its network, $125 million in Washington. Melonas said they have brought in 350 workers to Eastern Washington to do everything from replacing ties and rails to adding additional track to handle projected volumes.

Over 17 miles of double track and siding have been added in the Spokane-Pasco corridor, Melonas said. Cheney will see some of that this summer as six miles of new track is added to aid traffic flow.

"It's like adding an extra lane on a freeway," Melonas said.

BNSF has plans to spend about $1 billion of that $4.3 billion on new locomotives, freight cars and other acquisitions. Melonas said they have a bid out for 5,000 new generation tank cars to replace the older DOT-111 model which has shown a tendency to rupture in the event of a crash.

BNSF has also trained over 800 first-line responders in Washington, using hands-on methods, in order to get them familiar with railroad operations and how to respond to potentially hazardous accidents.

"Our goal is to make sure those trains make it safely," Melonas said. "We're running a railroad that's protective of Cheney and the environment. Our goal is not to have any incidents."

John McCallum can be reached at

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