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The Dirty Dance: Export Plan Puts North Idaho in the Middle of a New Coal Rush

Plans to bring coal trains across the Northwest raise big questions


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The Funnel

Looking at a map of rail lines in the western United States, one is struck by two patterns. The web of tracks fan out from the Midwest and converge into two dense choke points in the Mountain West. One in Salt Lake City, a vast hub for the Union Pacific Railroad, and the other in the Idaho Panhandle--smack dab on Sandpoint, where not only UP but Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and the much smaller Montana Rail Link meet before hitting the central rail yard in Spokane, Wash., and heading west and south.

They call it "the funnel" and for good reason. About 50 trains, and sometimes as many as 70, travel through Sandpoint every day. The blare of horns is so commonplace that locals don't even hear them and commuters habitually plan to be stopped at any of the more than 160 rail crossings located in Bonner County alone.

Should the coastal terminals open and coal shipments ramp up to meet an export market of 110 million tons per year, estimates cited in the WORC analysis suggest that rail traffic would need to increase by about 40 unit trains--some more than a mile-and-a-half long--traveling to or from the ports every day.

Along with that traffic would almost certainly come increased diesel emissions, wear and tear on the rail infrastructure and congestion, though officials with BNSF maintain the line through Sandpoint and Spokane has more than enough capacity to handle the traffic.

What really has environmental groups worried, though, are threats to air and water quality from the loads themselves. Some studies, including the WORC analysis, estimate that each coal car loses as much as 500 pounds of coal and dust, amounting to more than 30 tons per train, during each trip.

In the case of North Idaho, where the BNSF tracks run for miles along the northeastern shore of Lake Pend Oreille, that potentiality alone is starting to raise a ruckus.

"There's a lot of significant things that people should be concerned about, but what we're worried about are the impacts to the lake," said Shannon Williamson, who heads the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper organization. "The coal dust is quite significant, and when it flies off, it goes into the surrounding land and water. What's worse, if there's a derailment, it would be catastrophic. It would be horrific--like an oil spill--and that could be a real possibility."

Even the rail companies admit that coal dust is a danger, though officials with BNSF, which is itself owned by Buffett's mammoth Berkshire Hathaway, say the biggest threat stems from coal dust's corrosive effect on the rails not human health.

"At the origin location--the Powder River Basin--coal dust has posed a serious threat to the stability of our track," said Texas-based BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg. "But starting Nov. 1, we've taken measures to reduce coal dust. What we've said is, 'Shipper, you need to reduce your coal dust by 85 percent.'"

That is being accomplished by a request that coal loads be packed in the shape of a bread loaf to keep material from blowing off the sides. Still, loads are not required to be covered--and it costs time and money to do so--and without sealing the cars, it's inevitable that particulates and even chunks of coal will come loose.

That's nothing to worry about either, Lundsberg said, unless you live near the mine.

"If you take a dusty book off the shelf and blow on it, dust blows off the first time. If you blow on it a second time, no dust blows off," she said, adding that potential human health risks are "not something we've studied."

However, doctors in Bellingham, Wash., have, and they stated that coal and coal dust do pose an environmental and health danger no matter how far from the "origin location" they travel.

Lundsberg dismissed the study as inflated.

"You can't really compare health risks of miners with coal dust coming off of a car," she said. "Where we have coal dust problems are in the Powder River Basin. We've never had a complaint in Washington state."