Derailment adds fuel to coal train controversy

PASCO — A coal train that derailed and spilled 31 cars of the black dusty fuel caused little more than a big mess and a day’s delay in rail traffic in Mesa, but opponents of increased coal shipments through the Northwest say it’s an example of a serious risk.

No one was injured and no buildings were damaged Monday evening when the train derailed, said Franklin County sheriff’s Lt. Ronelle Nelson.

About 50 workers using heavy equipment worked through the night to clear the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main line track, said spokesman Gus Melonas.

They were able to put one car back on the track, but 30 were too badly damaged. They were pushed aside and will have to be cut up and removed in a salvage operation expected to take about three weeks, Melonas said.

About 30 trains a day roll through the area about 20 miles north of the Tri-Cities. About four a day are coal trains, the state has said. The route also is used by the Portland- Chicago Amtrak.

Priority trains were able to roll through the area on a siding by Tuesday afternoon and the main line should re-opened by 8 p.m., Melonas said.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation.

The 125-car train with four locomotives was carrying coal from the Powder Basin in Wyoming to an export terminal at Delta, B.C.

With a growing demand for coal in Asia, there are a half-dozen proposals for new coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon. They are at Cherry Point, Longview and Port of Grays Harbor, as well as Coos Bay in Oregon and two sites on the Columbia River.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology have all asked the Army Corps of Engineers to thoroughly review the cumulative impacts of exporting large amounts of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.

Environmental groups oppose the shipments. They site congestion and dust pollution problems with the trains and say regulators also should consider the effect on climate change from burning North America coal in Asia.

“As more trains come through, the risks of accidents go up,” said Shannon Wright, executive director with Communitywise Bellingham, a group that wants studies of the local community impacts of a proposed coal-export terminal at Cherry Point.

“A close look at the increased risk of train wrecks needs to be studied,” as the environmental review process gets under way, she said Tuesday.

Derailments are a serious risk, said Krista Collard, with the Sierra Club’s Northwest Beyond Coal Campaign in San Francisco.

“This is a perfect example of why,” she said. “We’ve been calling for the corps to do a full evaluation of all six proposals from mine to rail and port to plant in Asia.”

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