A public panel discussion on coal and oil train traffic in the Puget Sound area drew a standing-room-only crowd Friday to Everett’s Snohomish County Administration Building, where they heard a group of local experts discuss and debate everything from public safety concerns to local traffic delays, climate and regional economic impacts.
Moderated by Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Sommers, the panel was comprised of Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions, Sightline Institute Policy Director Eric de Place, Sean Ardussi of Puget Sound Regional Council, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, BNSF Consultant Terry Finn and Joe Ritzman of SSA Marine.
Driving the discussion is the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, which when fully operational would ship 48 metric tons of coal per year to markets in Asia. That would mean 18 trains per day, each hauling more than a mile and a half of hopper cars filled with coal from the Powder River Basin and other Western U.S. deposits. Add to this the increase in tank car trains — a “pipeline on rails” as described by panel member Eric de Place — carrying shale oil and other petroleum products, and the impact to the Puget Sound region, and especially communities along the main rail lines, would be tremendous.
Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions pointed out that with domestic coal consumption on the decline due to shifting energy technologies, companies with large holdings in the Powder River Basin and other areas need to get the coal out of the ground and sell it while they can, and that the big markets are in Asia. In their rush to bring their product to market, “coal is being sold for pennies on the dollar right now,” he said, resulting in increased pressure to transport the coal to embarkation points. This means more congestion on rail lines, more potential for accidents and more impacts on communities located along the rail routes, he added.
In addition, the increase in railway coal and oil traffic is crowding out other goods — including grain shipments — and farmers are feeling the disruption. According to panelist de Place, this shift is already negatively affecting the farming industry and amounts to “replacing an economy that adds value to the state with one that adds no value.”
Terry Finn, former BNSF Executive Director for Public Affairs, disagreed that we are anywhere near the end of the coal era. Pointing out studies that predict fossil fuels will still serve 80 percent of the world’s energy needs in 2040, he argued that it makes environmental sense to use the U.S.-produced coal.
“The market will be there regardless,” he said. “Powder River coal is among the cleanest available. If we don’t ship ours, they’ll get it somewhere else and we’ll end up with more emissions and increased global warming.”
Responding to safety concerns raised by some recent highly-publicized train derailments, Finn went on to document the investments by BNSF in safety and infrastructure improvements.
“In 2014, the railroad will spend $5 billion on improving and maintaining the system, and enhancing safety,” he said. “This includes more efficient locomotives with lower emissions, state-of-the-art tank cars, and a high-tech safety and traffic monitoring system.”
Panelist Joseph Ritzman spoke for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, pointing out that the location is already heavily industrialized, with two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter operating now.
“Gateway Pacific would bring much-needed jobs to Whatcom County, and a boost to the local economy,” he added.
He echoed Finn by pointing out that “Asia is electrifying, and fossil fuels provide the vast majority of their generation. Stopping Northwest coal exports will have no effect on atmospheric emissions. These markets will simply get their coal — dirtier coal — from somewhere else.”
The final speaker, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, injected the local perspective into the discussion, pointing out that Edmonds has two at-grade crossings that split the town into two isolated islands every time a train passes through.
Earling began by relating his personal experience earlier this week while using a treadmill at a local athletic club overlooking the Edmonds waterfront. “An oil train went by, and I counted 116 cars,” he said, noting that tank cars average 60 feet long, making this train a mile and a third long.
“Right now 35 trains per day pass through Edmonds,” he said. “By 2020 this is projected to double, and by 2030 we’re looking at 104 trains per day, each of which shuts down our town. Right now we’re shut down for 90 minutes per day; by 2020 it will increase to four hours. That’s four hours every day that we’ll lose access to our waterfront parks, restaurants, businesses, the senior center, the ferry terminal, the underwater park. This is absolutely unacceptable, and it’s a problem we’re working on solving now.”
Panel discussion materials including documents and Power Point presentations will be made available on the Snohomish County website. Look for a direct link on the main page within the next few days. My Edmonds News TV videoed the entire two-hour session, and it will be available to view this weekend.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel