21st Century Viking: Digging Deeper Into The Coal Train Controversy

By Brian LeBlanc

Last month while writing an article about the coal train controversy, I talked to Herb Krohn, a railroad union representative at a WSDOT rail transportation public workshop. Krohn made several points that I felt needed further investigation.

Digging deeper into this issue has made me realize how long and complicated a process the decisions to build the coal terminals are going to be, but also how important it is to stay involved to the end.

The points that Krohn made that I felt were worth investigating further were: coal dust was not hazardous except in confined spaces, that people were getting worked up about coal when there are much more hazardous materials being transported on the rails every day, and that environmentalists were attacking the railroads to stop the use of this particular commodity.

While he explained to me the details of how the railroads transport coal, I asked him if putting covers on the train cars could reduce the coal dust. Krohn informed me that coal dust is combustible in small and enclosed spaces and that the loads can be sprayed down with surfactant to reduce the coal dust.

Before I contacted the Sierra Club, I wanted to learn more about how the railroads used the surfactant. I was surprised to learn that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), one of the railroads that would be shipping the coal, “has determined that coal dust poses a serious threat to the stability of our track structure and thus to the operational integrity of our lines in the Powder River Basin.”

In 2011, BNSF won a decision from the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the railroads, that confirms they can force the coal companies to “establish reasonable coal loading requirements that will prevent the loss of coal dust from the tops of open-top coal cars.” BNSF wants the coal companies to modify the way the train cars are loaded and also spray surfactant on the loads. These measures will not only reduce the coal dust coming off the cars but also increase the cost of shipping the coal. Read BNSF’s Coal FAQ here: http://www.bnsf.com/customers/what-can-i-ship/coal/coal-dust.html

When I called the Sierra Club, I asked Robin Everett with the Coal Free Northwest campaign about the issues Krohn raised. I mentioned BNSF’s efforts to reduce coal dust and asked her if there are there any compromises or mitigations that the railroad and the coal terminals could make to their proposals that would satisfy the Sierra Club. “There is no mitigation that we would accept,” said Everett.

I asked if it is the goal of the Sierra Club to stop the use of coal period. “Yes,” Everett replied.

I asked Everett about Krohn’s calling into question why people were protesting coal as there are more dangerous things being transported by rail. She called it “a false argument,” saying that coal was dangerous because it is, as she says, “the number one source of global warming.” “Just because you have nuclear waste being transported on the tracks doesn’t make coal OK.” Everett did emphasize, however, that the Sierra Club is not against railroads and transportation, but against coal exports.

Finally, I asked about the jobs that the pro-coal train advocates say would be created as a result of building the terminals. Everett acknowledged that it’s a tough economy and jobs are a concern, but “the project has a potential to hurt jobs in the long run,” especially those of fishermen and farmers along the routes. Instead of jobs based on coal exports, the Sierra Club is advocating for ones based on clean energy. She also mentioned that studies are currently being done, including the one commissioned by Mayor McGinn, that are trying to investigate the possible net benefits of the coal terminals to the region.

The initial period of public commentary on the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point ended Monday, Jan. 21. This public commentary will be used to inform the first round of the environmental review process, which is required by law. The entire environmental review process will take a couple of years and will be used by Federal, state, and Whatcom County officials to help them decide whether to issue the permits to build the Cherry Point coal terminal. The same process will inform the proposed one in Longview and the ones in Oregon.

There’s a lot at stake. These projects could affect Ballard, Washington and the entire Pacific Northwest. These officials are already getting a lot of pressure from two sides that seem unwilling to compromise. In the end, however, these officials are going to make the decision and we can only hope that we pay attention and hope they make the right call.

As concerned citizens, we need to understand the tangle of issues involved, educate ourselves on how the decision-making process works, and be willing to play the long game in order to make a difference.

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