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Already, the amount of coal passing through Western Washington en route to Canadian coal ports has mushroomed in the past year. In 2009, only 268,390 short tons of coal went through the Seattle Customs District en route to British Columbia. In the first nine months of 2010, the tonnage was 2,632,929 or an increase of ten times the entire 2009 volume in only nine months of 2010. The average coal trains hauls about 16,000 tons, so it would take 165 loaded trains (and 165 return trips for the empty cars) to haul the 2.6 millions tons of coal delivered in the first nine months of 2010.
The coal was shipped on the BNSF line; the big terminal at Roberts Bank gets most of its coal on Canadian lines, but traffic has increased through Washington as Chinese demands for coal increased in 2010. The demand from China is so large that an expansion of a coal terminal is planned for Port Rupert, B.C., which is currently at capacity. Added coal traffic at Roberts Bank and at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver is being driven by mines in Wyoming and Montana and Roberts Bank is considered to be "maxed out" in terms of new shipping contracts. Trains to Port Rupert may go through Spokane but are unlikely to use the Western Washington BNSF line.
The Canadian government is deeply involved in the coal-export field, leading to a series of environmental protests at the B.C. provincial capital in Victoria in recent weeks.
Conventional wisdom holds that BNSF is currently running about three full and three empty coal trains a day through Western Washington; Crosscut asked the railroad about that figure, but BNSF did not reply. The railroad also did not respond to questions regarding the number of trains needed to supply Gateway Pacific. The new terminal could double the number of coal trains now running; certainly, it will increase traffic.
In a sense, the issue of a bulk commodities terminal at Cherry Point, which could also handle wheat, potash and other dry bulk cargo, is less about the terminal itself than about the method of transportation and the global challenge of climate change.
Environmentalists argue that it makes no sense for the United States to ship massive amounts of coal for China to burn — sending toxic air across the Pacific to our West Coast — while at the same time we are closing domestic coal plants to clean the air.
Communities along the BNSF rail line, including the state's heavily populated Puget Sound region, may expect to see increased coal-train traffic for the indefinite future regardless of the fate of Cherry Point. But opening Cherry Point would sharply increase the coal traffic, perhaps doubling it if the terminal is running at capacity.
The impact on Amtrak, which already experiences delays to allow freight trains to pass, is unclear but certain. While coal-port developers, unions, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists argue, the railroad itself will play a critical but possibly silent hand.
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