New report has Spokane at the top of the list of Northwest cities bearing the environmental, safety, and transportation effects of projected coal shipments for Far East.
A new study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils puts Spokane and Billings, Montana, at the forefront of cities that will be forced to endure the brunt of future coal shipments to China and other Pacific Rim destinations. The study, released last week, comes on the verge of an expected surge in coal shipments from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to China and other Asian markets. Even though total U.S. coal exports have more than doubled in the past two years, the projections for Pacific Northwest exports are for a 15-fold increase in the next five years and a staggering 34-fold increase by 2022.
The purpose of the WORC Report, Heavy Traffic Ahead: Rail Impacts of Powder Basin Coal to Asia By Way of Pacific Northwest Terminals, was to analyze the logistics and constraints of moving that much more coal, via train, along Northwest railways. The 62-page report was authored by Terry Whiteside, a Billings-based transportation consultant and Gerald Fauth, a transit consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. Its findings will only underscore the flood of citizen concerns that were expressed at a June 18th Spokane City Council meeting as the council was preparing to vote, unanimously, on a resolution asking that the Spokane area be included in environmental studies required to site the new coal export terminals on the Washington coast.
“Repetitive and voluminous Powder River Basin (PRB) to Pacific Northwest (PNW) export coal movements will obviously benefit the coal companies, railroads, and terminal companies by generating billions of dollars in annual revenues and profits,” the report’s authors find, “but these coal movements will have a wide-range of adverse environmental, economic, transportation, public safety and other impacts. As described herein, the rail routes potentially impacted by the increase in PRB to PNW export coal cover an extremely broad impact area covering a total rail distance of over 4,000 miles.”
The two cities “most adversely impacted” the report concludes are Spokane and Billings, Montana.
“Nearly every PRB to P:NW loaded and empty coal train would move through these two cities (up to 63.2 trains per day through Spokane and 57.6 trains per day through Billings.”
In addition to the direct impacts, the report also finds that the public share of the cost to make needed improvements in railroad tracks and related infrastructure could cost billions of dollars and that “state and local governments would likely bear the brunt and burden” of these costs.
The main reason Spokane is expected to top the list of affected cities is that it is on the southern end of Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s 78 mile line segment between Sandpoint and Spokane.
“This line is commonly known as the ‘Funnel,’” the report notes, “and is the second busiest rail corridor in Washington.”
“The Funnel” is already very crowded, the report notes, so much so that state, regional and local entities a decade ago developed a capital spending plan called Bridging the Valley.
“The improvements were originally designed to handle a gradual growth in intermodal and grain traffic of up to 70 trains per day,” the report notes. “However, the expected rapid grown in PRB to PNW export coal traffic was not envisioned or considered when these improvements were first designed (2000) and approved (2006). Now, in a few short years, instead of the expected 70 trains per day, Spokane could see more than 130 trains per day, or 5.42 trains per hour moving through the city.”
The new report also notes that eight years ago the City of Billings produced a report finding that the existing growth in rail traffic was having the effect of creating a “barrier” in Billings that contributed to “the development and continuation of a social divider between downtown Billings and surrounding neighborhoods.”
That 2004 report, the new study points out, “was based on an estimated 30 trains per day through Billings. This traffic level, however, excluded the unexpected rapid growth in PRB to PNW export coal traffic, which would result in an additional 22.3 to 57.6 loaded and empty coal trains per day through Billings.”
The Western Organization of Resource Councils is a regional network of seven grassroots citizens organizations that include 10,000 members and 38 local chapters in the western states. It’s mission is to advance the vision of a democratic, sustainable and just society through community action.
–Tim Connor for the Center for Justice