Three recent coal train derailments are bolstering opposition to the planned expansion of coal exports from Pacific Northwest shipping terminals.
Last week, coal trains from BNSF Railway Co., owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., derailed in Texas and eastern Washington state, ground zero for the coal-shipping debate. And also last week in a Chicago suburb, a Union Pacific Corp. coal train derailed and destroyed a bridge, crushing two people driving through an underpass. In all, coal from dozens of rail cars spilled to the ground.
"There have been a lot of concerns about coal trains and the harm they cause, and the derailment is a very visual and immediate example of what's potentially coming our way," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental group.
More than 100 million tons of coal could travel by rail in the states of Washington and Oregon every year if proposed or potential shipping terminals are built (Greenwire, June 29). If that happens, opponents say, expect more derailments.
"We have heavily used rail running right down the side of the Columbia River through dozens of communities," VandenHeuvel said. "It's important for our economy to keep those goods moving, and coal trains can threaten to, not only slow down the rail and vehicle traffic, but also can immediately threaten the river and our communities with derailment."
The Federal Railroad Administration says there were 389 train derailments between January and April this year, compared to more than 500 during the same period last year. There were almost 1,500 derailments in all of 2011.
"Common sense tells you sometimes trains derail," Earthjustice activist David Lawlor wrote in a blog post. "Common sense also tells you that significantly increasing train traffic will result in more derailments."
But BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said derailments have declined to record lows in the past 30 years.
"Rail is the safest form of land transportation and has continued to make dramatic improvements in its safety record," Lundsberg wrote in response to submitted questions. "Since 1980 the industry's train accident rate has been reduced by 77 percent, the rail employee injury rate fell 82 percent, and the grade crossing collision rate fell 81 percent."
Warren Flatau, an FRA spokesman, said he and his colleagues cannot identify specific safety issues with coal train traffic.
"As you know, coal is by far the single largest bulk commodity transported by rail, and both shippers and industry are most directly involved in addressing environmental and community impact concerns," he said.
But environmentalists point to the rail industry's own concerns about the accumulation of coal dust in tracks preventing drainage and spurring derailments (Greenwire, Jan. 25, 2010).
The National Transportation Safety Board, which said it is not investigating the accidents in Washington or Illinois, said coal dust on the tracks is typically a factor its investigators consider in derailment cases. Union Pacific said its preliminary investigation of the Chicago suburban crash indicates excessive heat was a major factor.
"The presence of coal dust on the track structure would be one of several factors examined during an investigation," NTSB said in a statement for this story. "Coal dust, along with other contaminants have the potential of adversely impacting the proper drainage of the track structure."
Last year the Surface Transportation Board, after some opposition from electric power generators, approved measures pushed by BNSF to limit coal dust on tracks. The company says a "crusting agent" helps suppress the material after it leaves the mine.
"Coal dust had absolutely nothing to do with this derailment, and our previous studies on the issue demonstrated that was only an issue in the vicinity of the loading stations, and that has since been addressed," BNSF spokeswoman Lundsberg said. "Opponents have consistently misrepresented what our studies of the issue actually said about the issue."
Ian Savage, a Northwestern University transportation economist, said many coal trains go directly from their source to power plants without switching. That, he said, is a plus for safety.
"In general, coal is a relatively benign commodity when it gets spilled in a train crash," Savage said in an interview. "Given the fact that it's not [liquefied petroleum gas] or chlorine."
But environmentalists say concerns about coal traffic in the Pacific Northwest go beyond safety. They say the region's economy could take a hit if coal train traffic affects the movement of other goods.
Savage said they have a point. "You're pretty close to capacity on some of these routes," he said about some traffic coming from the Powder River Basin's coal-rich areas (Greenwire, July 7, 2005).
The recession, he added, has reduced U.S. rail traffic. "The amount of congestion is not what is was," he said.
But a new report prepared for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a network of seven grass-roots groups, said coal train traffic could reach 170 million tons per year by 2020 in the Pacific Northwest and to Canada.
"In addition to the obvious environmental and traffic safety concerns," the report says, "the expected large coal volumes will result in several major choke points and bottlenecks and will likely cause rail congestion problems for the entire route."
The report, "Heavy Traffic Ahead," predicts dozens of new coal trains a day crossing through the region, with Spokane, Wash., and Billings, Mont., being most affected. Train traffic, the report says, will affect 29,000 acres along the way and 4,000 miles of rail.
"Many impacted railroad line segments, such as the line known as 'The Funnel' from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Spokane, Wash., already have significant capacity and congestion problems and upgrades will be required," said Gerald Fauth, a former Surface Transportation Board staffer and one of the experts who helped prepare the report.
"By law," Fauth said, "the railroads can pay for no more than 5 percent of the total cost of rail and other infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the huge increase in rail traffic."
Carriers accuse the groups of making shaky assumptions and overestimating the problem. In a May letter to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), BNSF CEO Matthew Rose touted the company's investments in new capacity and promised to focus on the smooth movement of goods.
"There are multiple factors that impact what route trains will take on any given day, such as weather, market conditions, customer needs and much more," Lundsberg said. "Railroad operations are impacted by so many factors that we simply cannot tell you with any certainty what routes trains will take five years from now, much less next week."