Posted February 14, 2013 by Cooper Point Journal in News

Coal Trains Gain Traction; Environmental Statement Under Review

With the scoping process over last January, the Gateway Pacific Terminal project is waiting for the environmental impact statement (EIS) to give the green light on a terminal proposal for a deepwater export facility that would export coal. The EIS, conducted by Whatcom County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Washington Department of Ecology, will consider the environmental impacts of the terminal, along with human health effects and the 124,000 official comments made during the scoping process.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal, which will be located at Cherry Point, would become the U.S.’s largest coal port, shipping more than 48 million tons of coal to China every year, more than doubling the output of the current largest coal port in British Columbia. The coal itself would be

transported out of the Powder River Basin in Montana on Burlington Northwest Santa Fe (BNSF) railroads, one of which passes through Lacey.

BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said, “There are three major [train] routes through Washington. Factors like weather, customer needs, … and freight volumes would help determine which tracks the trains would use. At maximum capacity, [BNSF] would be running nine full trains and nine empty trains. Not every train would be filled with coal.” Wallace also explained that many factors like customer demand and weather would determine how many trains would be running at any given time.

Coal Train Facts, a non-profit organization that gathers “clear, verifiable, and easy-to-access” information concerning the GPT proposal, estimates that the trains would have up to 150 cars, the equivalent of being over a mile long.

Dawna Linderman, a mother who lives behind the Lacey railroad, commented, “The trains don’t bother me, but the dust does. And I don’t know what adding coal will do.” Living right next to the tracks, the trains kick up a lot of dust that settles inside Linderman’s house. “You are supposed to clean your filters every three months,” Linderman said, “and when I do, they’re just caked.”

Linderman touched upon an important issue that many environmentalists and health-conscious Washingtonians are concerned about widespread coal dust.

When trains reach Everett, their route takes them directly along the Sound, where coal dust could damage marine life, especially to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. According to a recent BNSF frequently asked questions page in 2011, “500 pounds to a ton of coal can escape from a single loaded coal car,” depending on weather, the speed and distance the coal train is going. The page presently online says, “Coal dust in a non-issue is Western Washington.”

The terminal’s first customer, Peabody Energy, plans to use a “water based product that has the same key ingredients found in white school glue”, reports the GPT’s website. The product would create a crust over the coal “to eliminate potential concerns about dust in the state.”

SSA Marine, which is in charge of building the terminal, estimates the terminal project would create over 4,000 temporary jobs for the two years it would take to construct the terminal. A 2011 Martin Association Economics Impacts Report estimates that 490 direct long-term jobs when the terminal reaches full capacity.

There have been several protests against the GPT project in Seattle and Olympia, but in Lacey, where one of BNSF’s railroads passes through, a short poll found families who live along the railroad show little interest or concern towards the potential increase in coal trains in their area. “I think people think things are ok, and they don’t want to deal with it,” commented Gita Moulton, a founder of South Sound Environmental Education Clearinghouse (SPEECH), an organization designed to share information about environmental issues. Moulton was not surprised to learn that concern for the issues of coal trains is low. “If we don’t talk about it, and the media doesn’t talk about it, it doesn’t seem real. They can’t see what it’ll be like. People will react after it happens.”

For more information about the coal train protests and further updates on the GPT project, check out the South Sound Green Pages.

By Ray Still