A new study of rail transportation problems associated with the transport of millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest was released today in Montana, citing "a huge, huge increase in volume that we've never seen in this part of the world."
That assessment came from Terry C. Whiteside, a Billings-based transportation consultant who co-authored the regional study. In a telephone news conference he cited potential impacts on time-sensitive shipments of other commodities, including grain and Northwest manufactured goods headed for markets in the Midwest. Whiteside and Gerald W. Fauth III, a transit consultant based in Alexandria, Va., said Northwest communities need to unite to assure a full review of the impact on local communities.
Numerous Northwest governments and organizations have called for a broad environmental impact review of the six U.S. export terminals that are proposed; most have directed their concerns to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the lead federal agency on the applications for terminals where permits have already been filed.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), sponsor of the new study, supports that idea, but also suggests an appeal to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads. "The STB has often been involved incases which involved mitigation resulting from increased railroad traffic levels," the consultants said, including cases related to Powder River Basin coal.
Export terminals now under consideration in Washington and Oregon would attract an estimated 63 million tons of coal in 2017 if all are opened, expanding to as much as 145 million tons in 2022. By comparison, just over 5 million tons were burned in 2011 by the Northwest's two coal plants, both of which will close by 2025.
Most observers do not expect that all proposals will be approved, and the timetable could be delayed. Most of the coal will be moved on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rails; a small amount to Oregon ports would be on Union Pacific lines.
The WORC report focuses on heavy-impact areas or "choke points" on the thousand-mile route from the mines to West Coast ports. Among those spots are Billings, Mont., and a segment known as "The Funnel" between Sandpoint, Idaho, and Spokane. Coal traffic at Spokane could be up to 63 trains a day in addition to the heavy traffic the city already bears; in Billings it would be 58 trains per day. City governments in both cities and in Cheney, which is bisected by rail lines, are among those calling for broad reviews of the export terminals.
The report assumes that BNSF will carry all of the coal coming into Washington ports and some of the Oregon-bound coal. In Washington, the line from Spokane through Tri-Cities, the Columbia Gorge, and north toward Bellingham is expected to carry most or all of the loaded coal trains and most of the empty returns. Some of the latter could be routed through Stampede Pass, which cannot handle loaded cars. The report sees some loaded cars using Stevens Pass.
WORC believes the most serious choke points are near Spokane and Billings. In the case of Spokane, four major rail lines converge between Spokane and Sandpoint and average 46 freight trains a day, in addition to Amtrak. A major upgrade was designed to handle 70 trains a day; WORC notes that the coal traffic at buildout would far exceed that capacity if all terminals are approved.
Spokane is already heavily impacted by rail traffic, and the city has asked for a study of the coal terminals that includes its rail impacts. Even more impacted is the nearby small city of Cheney, where the same trains bisect the city. Cheney officials are also demanding that their impacts be studied. "What's happening to us is we are bearing unacceptable external costs," Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove told reporters in a May telephone conference; he said the city hoped to pursue a "quiet zone" by enhancing crossings but BNSF plans for a double track will make that impossible.
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