Coal train discussion worth having in Tri-Cities

December 11, 2012 

Let's talk dirty. In public.

We're talking about the possibility of quadrupling the number of coal trains coming through the Tri-Cities.

We live on a rail route between Montana and China that could see an increase in coal trains -- a big increase -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million to 100 million tons a year or 30 miles of coal trains a day.

It affects us. It provides no economic benefit for us. And, so far, we don't get much say in the process.

Anyone -- including Mid-Columbia residents -- can go online and comment.

But online comments aren't an adequate substitute for a public forum.

This proposed addition to the region's train traffic has the potential to affect our quality of life. It's a decision that deserves the sort of dialogue that can only come from a face-to-face encounter.

Online commenting makes sense for rural areas, which there are plenty of between Washington's Cherry Point terminal station and Montana. Contrary to some widely held opinions on the west side of the state, however, we're not a rural area anymore.

It's true that we're not a terminal for the coal trains. We're just a speck on the map that the trains would be traveling through. They probably wouldn't even stop here. (Although we would get to stop for them.)

But it should be noted that population in the Tri-Cities is around 200,000 these days. We're actually a fairly good-sized speck on any Washington map. Our opinion should be heard and our questions answered.

Some of the concerns that need to be addressed -- even if we're just a speck -- regard safety, increased rail traffic and coal dust from open-car transportation, among others.

According to coaltrainfacts.org, "Coal dust is notoriously difficult to control. BNSF estimates that each uncovered car loses between 500 pounds and a ton of coal dust en route."

The same source reports there have been at least 36 coal train derailments in the past two years in the United States. If we quadruple the number of train cars, can we expect to increase the number of derailments by the same factor?

Coaltrainfacts.org is streaming the Seattle Public Scoping Hearing over the internet at 4 p.m. Thursday for those unable to attend.

It's a welcome service. Public forums offer a chance to speak (as does online commenting), but they're also an opportunity to listen. No doubt, some important questions will be addressed Thursday.

But it's not good enough. The Mid-Columbia is getting the brush off on a proposal to bring major changes to the region's rail system.

The agencies reviewing the project ought to schedule a public forum in the Tri-Cities. This community deserves direct participation in the decision.

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