Environmental groups in Spokane upset about coal trains

SPOKANE — Environmental groups in the Spokane area are upset with proposals that could see dozens of trains loaded with coal destined for the Far East move through the city every day.

They fear that coal dust and increased diesel emissions will damage human health, while increased rail traffic will make for more dangerous intersections, among other hazards.

“Coal dust is a health hazard,” said Bart Mihailovich of Spokane Riverkeeper, which is part of a group called the Power Past Coal coalition that opposes the train shipments and the export of coal from Wyoming to fuel the booming economies of the Far East.

Coal companies are seeking permits to build port terminals near Bellingham and Longview to send up to 130 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming to China, India, Korea and Japan.

Regardless of where port terminals are built, the Wyoming coal would almost certainly move through Spokane and the Idaho Panhandle, where rail lines across the northern tier of the country converge, Mihailovich said.

“There is no way we are dodging the bullet,” Mihailovich said.

Power Past Coal is sponsoring a forum in Spokane on Thursday evening to inform people about the proposed shipments.

About 100 freight trains already pass through Spokane each day. They move along elevated tracks through the downtown core and some residential areas in the city of 200,000 people, Mihailovich said. The Sierra Club estimates the coal terminals could result in 30 to 60 additional trains moving through Spokane each day.

But Suann Lundsberg of BNSF Railway Co. said the railroad already ships coal through Spokane without problems. BNSF would serve the Bellingham terminal if it’s built.

Lundsberg, in Fort Worth, Texas, said it is too soon to predict how many coal trains would move through Spokane each day because the terminal is not scheduled to open until 2015.

“It will cause an increase in traffic,” she said. “But it’s too soon to tell what the market demand will be.”

BNSF has taken numerous steps to reduce coal dust that escapes from rail cars, she said. That includes new techniques for how cars are loaded, and a chemical that is sprayed on top of the coal to keep dust in place.

The railroad has an incentive to control coal dust because it can damage tracks and equipment, Lundsberg said.

Peabody Energy has announced plans to annually export 24 million tons of coal from a terminal north of Bellingham. In Longview, Millennium Bulk Terminals has purchased property for a coal terminal along the Columbia River. It could export 20 million to 80 million tons of coal per year.

Coal terminals have caused numerous problems at other locations, said Robin Everett, who works for the Sierra Club in Seattle.

“Coal is very toxic,” she said. “At places in Canada, there is a serious problem with coal dust covering up people’s homes.”

A group of doctors in Whatcom County recently issued a report saying exposure to coal dust could increase asthma rates, and that a big increase in train traffic would increase noise pollution, air pollution from diesel engines and cause more injuries at crossings, Everett said.

Environmental groups in Washington and Oregon have worked hard to wean the region from its coal-fired power plants, and that work will have been in vain if trainloads of coal are shipped from Northwest ports to the Far East, Mihailovich said.

“It gets burned there and the pollution comes back on the jet stream over here,” he said. “We didn’t win anything.”

The Spokane region will be a particular loser because the trains will move through the heart of the city, but not provide any new jobs, he said.

“On the west side, they stand to benefit with jobs,” he said. “In Spokane we have no benefit.”

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