Unanimous council urges Spokane be closely studied before decision on massive coal shipments on the city’s rail routes.
By Scott Jackson, for the Center for Justice
After hearing over two hours of testimony Monday night, the Spokane City Council voted 5-0 in support of Spokane’s inclusion in an environmental study that would look closely at the effects of increased coal train traffic to and through Spokane. The vote marked another noteworthy legislative accomplishment for Council President Ben Stuckart who, by all accounts, worked vigorously to draft a resolution addressing a global and regional controversy on terms that could transcend the council’s political and ideological differences.
“This resolution is very specific to Spokane and what those impacts are on our citizens that we represent,” said Stuckart.
The resolution addresses the prospect of bringing as many as 60 additional uncovered coal trains per day through Spokane and surrounding communities. Though the language of the measure is not kind to coal, it stops short of calling for regulation or restricting the coal shipments. Rather, it advocates that the proposed coal shipments be part of a broad environmental impact statement. It also calls for at least one of the study’s so-called “scoping” hearings be held in Spokane so that the public can testify about the sort of environmental, economic, public health, and transportation consequences the analysis should include.
As Center for Justice Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt noted in his testimony, there are both federal and state environmental laws that will require thorough environmental impact analysis on the plans to use Washington ports for massive coal shipments to China. The coal will come from large-scale mining operations in Wyoming.
“This is not a resolution saying export facilities for coal are bad,” Stuckart explained. “It’s not a resolution that talks about global warming, and it’s not a resolution that says businesses don’t have the right to do business. It’s just saying, ‘what are those impacts upon us?’”
In answer, nearly 40 people showed up and gave testimony in support of the resolution, including former railroad employees, the Associate Superintendent for Cheney Public Schools, and at least two physicians. Reasons both professional and personal were espoused. The council heard concerned mothers, citizens and activists.
The opposition was limited to three people, all of whom receive paychecks from railroads. Foremost among them was Terry Finn, Executive Director for BNSF Government Affairs in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.
“We probably employ six hundred to eight hundred people in Spokane and we drop about $225 million in payroll in state of Washington and about a hundred and ten million a year in rail upgrades and expansion projects, just to maintain,” Finn said.
“It’s not that Spokane has no impacts. Although Spokane is in good shape because it also has a lot of benefits from rail that others don’t enjoy,” he added. “But we really caution council about approving a resolution that maybe does set a precedent that will kill off many projects, regardless of whether they are coal-related.”
Eichsteadt spoke immediately after Finn and sharply disagreed, saying that national and state environmental laws clearly intend for effects of transportation to be captured in pre-decisional environmental studies and that not including Spokane would be contrary to law and set a bad precedent.
Finn ended his testimony by challenging those attending to go out and observe the trains for themselves, to see if they can spot any coal dust. Though, according to physician and air pollution researcher Dr. Robert Truckner, it’s the particles that you can’t see that you have to worry about.
“When diesel engines burn fuel they create soot, just as fire creates ash,” explained Dr. Truckner, who once held a research position at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effect Laboratory in North Carolina. “The particulate matter we’re talking about here is about 2.5 microns. Around the base of a single hair, fifty of these particles will fit.”
If you do the math, Truckner said, “you wind up with fifty two tons a year of these tiny, tiny particles in Spokane County.”
Though coal and diesel particulates were the most common theme, another major concern was how the added rail traffic caused by the shipments would affect roadways and other rail traffic in and around Spokane.
Kitty Klitzke, the Eastern Washington Program Director for the state-wide environmental organization Futurewise, zeroed in on studies indicating the added shipments would pose an unworkable added burden on the already busy rail routes through Spokane. Klitzke, the granddaughter of a BNSF track inspector, argued that by increasing the freight traffic by anywhere between 20 to 60 trains daily, the sharply increased number of coal shipments would put unnecessary strain on their own infrastructure. She was particularly concerned with the effects 20 to 60 additional coal trains per day would have on the Inland Pacific Hub project, and that project’s goals of stimulating regional and global economy.
“If this range of expectation is accurate this would put our rail lines somewhere between twenty to seventy percent over capacity,” wrote Klitzke in an email sent out before the meeting. “City Council should do whatever it can to make sure economic development plans like the IPH are not compromised by far away interests that only add wear and tear to our infrastructure,”
Broadening the environmental study process to include the impacts on the Spokane area is just common sense, said Councilman Jon Snyder.
“All we’re really asking for is an impacts hearing,” said Snyder. “To give you an example, if you wanted to build an apartment complex here in the City of Spokane you’d be asked to do more environmental review than we’re asking for right now.”
To the activists, a big part of the victory Monday night was the involvement and education of the public. It is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich also testified Monday night. Though he would have preferred to address the larger, planetary implications of shipping coal to carbon dioxide belching power plants in China, Mihailovich seemed content with the council’s agenda.
“I mean, of course I want it all,” Mihailovich said in an interview earlier Monday. “I want to have those debates tonight, but I’m okay with piecing this together, and just sort of riding it out. I know we’re in for the long haul. To have a government body, a city council, say ‘we want to see the impacts looked at,’ that’s going to help provide a little fuel to our fire to keep going; to keep fighting because this isn’t the only time we’re going to be talking about this.”
Scott Jackson is a Center for Justice intern.