Group warns of rail tie-ups

BILLINGS, Mont. — The coal industry’s ambitious Asian export plans could lead to a tenfold spike in cargo trains passing through the Northwest, according to a new report from a conservation group that warns of tied up rail lines, more coal dust emissions and communities left on the hook to help cover billions of dollars in improvements.

Wednesday’s report from the Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Councils comes amid proposals to export as much as 170 million tons of coal annually through ports in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

The fuel would come primarily from mines in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, an approximately 1,500-mile haul.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a huge, huge increase in volume like we’ve never seen before in this part of the world,” said Terry Whiteside, one of the authors of the report.

U.S. coal exports reached their highest level in decades last year with 107 million tons shipped overseas.

For now most of that coal is moving through ports on the East and Gulf coasts. But Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and other major coal miners are pushing aggressively for more West Coast capacity.

The Western Organization of Resource Council report contends that if pending port proposals are approved, within ten years about 60 coal trains a day would pass through major rail choke points in Billings and Spokane, Wash. That compares to about 5 coal trains a day now.

Smaller increases would be seen in Seattle, Portland and other major cities across the region.

The market is expected to be dominated by Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway because it has the shortest route to the coast and the most competitive prices, according to report co-author Gerald Fauth.

Union Pacific and Montana Rail Link also operate in the Rockies-to-Pacific Northwest corridor. Combined, the railroads face $5 billion or more in potential needed improvements, the report claimed.

BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said the company has dealt with shipping demand increases in the past and can do so again. BNSF has spent more than $36 billion in capital improvements since 2000, she said.

“I can assure you BNSF will not underinvest to accommodate our customers’ businesses and our past investments are proof of that,” Lundsberg said.

She added that the study was flawed in assuming that BNSF would be the dominant carrier for Northwest coal exports because Union Pacific is also a major player in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

Also, it remains uncertain whether pending proposals to expand and build new coal ports will be approved by regulatory agencies.

Export opponents are motivated in part by worries that feeding Asia’s growing demand for coal could exacerbate climate change. But Fauth and Whiteshead said the local impacts could be severe for local and state governments dealing with the increased rail traffic.

If the railroads won’t pay for needed improvements to rail crossings, governments could face costs of hundreds of millions of dollars, they said.

The report said increased exports also raise environmental concerns about possible train derailments and emissions from diesel train engines and blowing coal dust.

Chuck Denowh with the industry-backed group Count on Coal said the worries over coal dust were overstated and that industry opponents were exaggerating the numbers of trains that could result from increased exports.

“They’re continuing to push this notion that there’s going to be a train coming through here every minute and it’s just not true,” Denowh said.

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