Officials in Tri-Cities unconcerned with possibility of more coal trains

McClatchy NewsDecember 2, 2012 

As some Washington communities debate plans to build five coal terminals in the region, the issue barely has registered in other towns that could find themselves on a coal transportation pipeline stretching from mines in Wyoming and Montana to the Columbia River and Pacific Coast ports.

While state, local and federal agencies reviewing the project have scheduled seven public meetings, all but one of them are in Western Washington.

The lone meeting in Eastern Washington is next week in Spokane, where there are concerns about increased coal train traffic.

No meetings are scheduled in the Tri-Cities, which like other places in the state are likely to see an increase in the number of coal trains when the largest of the planned ports begins operating.

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham in Northwest Washington would transfer coal from trains to ships bound for China, which will burn it to generate electricity.

No debate in Tri-Cities

In the Tri-Cities, the absence of public debate about exporting coal is a contrast to the tense meetings that have taken place in the northwest part of the state.

In late October, almost 2,000 people packed a high school auditorium in Bellingham, a college town of about 82,000 about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. A meeting last week in Ferndale, north of Bellingham and closer to the Gateway Pacific Terminal site, drew more than 1,000.

Another last month in Mount Vernon, population 32,000, turned out a similar crowd. A meeting at Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, drew about 450 attendees. Other meetings are planned this month in Seattle and Vancouver.

"While it won't be possible to conduct a meeting in every community, we have established a website that includes all the materials displayed at the seven community meetings," said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology, one of three agencies that will determine the scope of the environmental impact statement for Gateway Pacific. The other two are the Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County, where the terminal would be built.

Altose said a four-month public comment period is "unprecedented" for any scoping process ever undertaken in Washington, and that more than 7,000 people have submitted comments electronically so far.

"The three co-lead agencies will consider all comments, regardless of how or from where they were submitted," he said. "We welcome Tri-Citians and people everywhere to use these opportunities."

But Emily Washine, a spokeswoman for the Yakama Nation, said the issue wasn't on the tribe's radar until recently. She said a digital divide exists in tribal communities, and for some people, it might not be as simple as going to the internet to comment on a project they're just learning about. It also might not be as simple as going to the closest meeting, which could mean a three-hour drive -- if the weather's good.

"Having a closer meeting would definitely give people an opportunity to wrap their arms around what's being proposed," Washine said. "A lot of information is coming across very quickly and at a highly technical reporting level. It doesn't resonate with locals."

More trains in the Tri-Cities

Some Mid-Columbia officials said they hadn't followed the debate and hadn't considered the possibility of increased delays at road crossings, a point of contention elsewhere.

Others shrugged. Mike Harris, a deputy fire chief in Benton County, said that more trains could increase the chance of delays at road crossings for emergency personnel but added that the department has emergency vehicles stationed on both sides of the tracks.

"We've just kind of learned to live with the train delays," he said.

Two crossings that could be affected are on Cottonwood Creek Boulevard and Leslie Road, Harris said.

While there have been some delays on routine calls, Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said he can't recall in his 30 years on the force when an officer couldn't get to an emergency because of a train. Emergency officials are sometimes able to alert trains headed to the area to stop if there's a potential access problem.

"I think the frustration to the average motorist may be a little higher," he said.

The railroad's preferred route would send more trains past Kamiakin High School on Edison Street, but school officials said they aren't expected that to be much of an issue, said Lorraine Cooper with the Kennewick School District.

Pasco's police and fire vehicles also likely wouldn't be delayed by the coal trains if they use BNSF Railway's current preferred route along the Columbia River, said Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear.

For the most part, Pasco has railroad overpasses.

The railroad company's preferred route would take the trains through Pasco, across the Columbia River on the rail bridge parallel to the cable bridge, through Finley, by Kennewick's Kamiakin High School and through Badger Canyon.

Kennewick Fire Chief Neil Hines agreed that emergency vehicles are rarely delayed at railroad crossings. And if they are, the delay is just a minute or two.

Tri-City ties to trains

Opposition might be low in the Tri-Cities because of the area's economic ties to the railroad.

Pasco is a regional hub for BNSF Railway, the railroad that operates three main routes across Washington. All of them could be used for coal shipments, said Suann Lunsberg, a spokeswoman for BNSF in Fort Worth, Texas. The railroad employs about 300 people in the area, but Lunsberg said there were no immediate plans to hire more personnel or add more track to accommodate the new traffic. She said rail shipments still haven't recovered to pre-recession levels.

BNSF Railway is not the only rail company planning to increase rail traffic in the Tri-City area.

Railex, which ships agricultural products and wine to the East Coast, might see an increase in activity at the shipping company's current 215,000-square-foot facility near Wallula, thanks to a new distribution center planned for Georgia or Florida.

Building that new distribution center would double the number of trains to Railex to four a week.

But Jim Kleist, senior vice president of West Coast operations for Railex, said increased coal train traffic is not likely to affect Railex, which partners with Union Pacific for rail service, using different rail lines.

Coal (export) country

Though coal still generates 40 percent of America's electricity, Washington plans to phase out its lone coal-fired power plant by the time Gateway Pacific opens. But if the terminal becomes fully operational as planned by 2017, Washington would be home to the largest coal export terminal in North America, shipping as much as 54 million tons a year. That's half of the entire U.S. coal export total in 2011.

Supporters, including business and labor groups, say the project would create jobs in a region that needs them and urge quick approval.

Opponents, including environmental groups and Indian tribes, say the coal shipments will bring increased noise and pollution and disturb tribal fishing areas and cultural sites.

They hope to slow or stop the project with a wide-ranging review that not only looks at the effect on communities near the ports, but also in towns along the coal trains' path.

"The reason that we've been calling for this is that there's so many areas impacted," said Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. "When people learn about this issue, they are solidly in our camp."

But the message may not be reaching every affected community.

With a combined population of about 190,000, the size of the Tri-Cities rivals and even exceeds the size of the seven communities where meetings have been scheduled.

It's also where the rails start following the Columbia River west, and Indian tribes on the Washington and Oregon sides of the river have expressed concerns.

In July, a coal train derailed in Mesa, a rural town north of the Tri-Cities, spilling about 30 cars of the 125-car train. No one was hurt and there was no environmental damage but the incident became a rallying cry for opponents of the project as an example of what could go wrong.

"Along the Columbia River, it's cliff, highway, railroad, then river," said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in September. "Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We've got nowhere to escape."

* Kristi Pihl, of the Tri-City Herald, reported from Pasco and Kennewick. John Stark of the Bellingham Herald contributed to this story.

* Curtis Tate: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis;

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