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Photo by Callum Black [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Photo by Callum Black [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Will Asia’s desire for Powder River Basin Coal Impact North Idaho? A report from Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper


Bonner County, Idaho is blessed with the kind of stunning natural beauty that other counties can only dream about. It is home to a magnificent array of natural resources including sparkling lakes, rivers and streams, towering mountains and wild open spaces. It is also home to the not-so-occasional train chugging along the various rail lines that traverse the county, diligently moving cargo to its final destination. Some might argue that the trains are charming to watch, their whistles soothing, hypnotic if you will. Some might argue the opposite. Whichever side of the “track” you fall on, it’s pretty safe to say that the current level of train traffic (about 50 trains a day, a handful of which carry coal) doesn’t constitute a major problem for Bonner County... yet.

That could all change in the not-too-distant future if proposals put forth by major coal companies, including Peabody Energy and Arch Coal Inc., are approved. 

Let’s back up for a moment: There is an awful lot of coal in Montana and Wyoming, specifically in a region called the Powder River Basin. Asia (primarily China and India) uses an awful lot of coal to keep their coal-powered industries alive. It’s simple supply and demand with a whole lot of profit to be made in the middle—for the coal companies, that is. The coal mined from the Powder River Basin is loaded into open (yes open) coal cars, about 120 of them per train, and transported by rail on its westward journey towards the coast for export across the Pacific Ocean. These behemoth, 1.5 mile long trains, powered by five diesel engines, eventually make their way through Bonner County as they head into “the funnel,” where all of the rail lines converge in scenic Sandpoint, Idaho.

Would you notice if an additional 50 to 66 trains, carrying up to 160 tons of dirty coal per year, started coming through Bonner County every day, bringing the total number of trains to 100 or more? How could you not? The problems associated with this scenario are as numerous as they are diverse. Let’s start with the environment, since really, it’s all that fresh air and clean water that’s a big draw for residents of North Idaho. Coal dust and diesel particulates, not unexpectedly, tend to degrade air and water quality.  

Coal is a surprisingly complex substance. It’s not just an innocuous rock made of harmless carbon. It contains more than 40 heavy metals (including mercury, lead and arsenic), radioactive materials and carcinogenic hydrocarbons. As the open coal trains move from Point A to Point B, coal dust blows off the top of the cars and into the surrounding environment. It’s difficult to precisely quantify how much coal dust will make its way onto the land and into our local waterways. This is a function of multiple variables such as train and wind speed, conditions that cause wind vortices (e.g. trains passing each other, geological formations) and weather conditions (i.e. rain). “Friability” (how prone the coal is to size degradation) also plays an important role in the formation of coal dust; and Powder River Basin coal is considered highly friable. According to the report “PRB Coal Degradation—Causes and Cures” by R. Hossfeld and R. Hatt, “PRB represents the extremes of handling problems: dust is an issue when the coal is fine and dry… once the PRB coal is exposed by mining, the degradation process begins—the majority of damage can occur in a very short time, even as short as a few days.”

In an effort to control the escape of coal dust, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad requires that shippers comply with coal loading rules that include the use of a “topper agent” that has been shown to reduce the release of coal dust by 85 percent. While this is a great idea in theory, BNSF currently has no measures in place to ensure compliance, and according to WUSA9 (a CBS news affiliate station in Washington, DC), only an estimated 30 percent of shippers are doing so. A 100 percent compliance rate would go a long way towards alleviating concerns over the release of coal dust from open rail cars, but until this is accomplished, the threats to water quality persist. Despite all of the variability around coal dust, it’s safe to say that coal and water do not and should not go together. 

Coal dust and diesel particulates also work collectively to degrade the quality of the air we breathe. While inhalation of coal dust has been linked to chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis, inhalation of diesel particulates can lead to even more serious conditions including an increased incidence and severity of asthma in children, an increased rate of heart attacks in adults, increased cardiopulmonary mortality and an increase in cancer (to name a few). 

The list of potential hazards continues to unwind with delayed emergency response, a sharp increase in the probability of fatal accidents and immense traffic congestion from choked rail lines. More than 100 trains a day translates into one train every 12 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, winter, spring, summer and fall. The local economy will suffer as tourism declines, business suffers, jobs are lost and property values plummet (due to coal dust, the ever-present wall of trains and noise pollution). There is no economic benefit for this region. No jobs created, no investments made. It’s a no-win situation. The coal will roll through Bonner County, on to Spokane, ending at yet to be determined export facilities on the west coast of Washington or along the Columbia River.

You might be thinking, how bad could it possibly be (if you choose to not acknowledge said hazards above)? After all, who are we to stop commerce, even if it has no benefit for us? Derailment. That’s what stops commerce, literally. 

According to a report produced by the U.S. Department of Energy, twenty major derailments occurred along the Powder River Basin Main Lines between 2005 and 2007, causing approximately $4.8 million in damage. Coal dust weakens and destabilizes tracks by collecting in the ballast; and even the U.S. Department of Transportation classifies it as “a pernicious ballast foulant.” Not to mention that Bonner County recently experienced its very own train derailment at the end of March. Luckily, the spilled cargo was simply soybeans. However, an incident such as this brought on by soggy weather that we have no control over, demonstrates the high potential for this to happen again. A coal train derailment, particularly over Lake Pend Oreille, would be in the simplest terms, devastating. Based on prior evidence, it’s really not a question of if this will happen, but when.

Not to mention that the end result of burning the proposed 100 million plus tons of coal in Asia is the production of approximately 200 million tons of climate changing pollution, much of which we will have the pleasure of breathing again as it makes its journey back across the Pacific Ocean on prevailing winds, impacting the western United States. The question before us is right now is what can be done about this?

Sandpoint City Council recently stepped up to the plate and made their voices heard by adopting a resolution in April titled “Concerns Regarding Increased Coal Train Traffic in the City of Sandpoint.” The resolution details many of the concerns related above, particularly with respect to the economic, public health and environmental impacts to the Lake Pend Oreille region. The primary recipient of the resolution was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which processes permit applications for all of the proposed coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon and conducts environmental reviews. Perhaps most importantly, the city put forth two requests through the resolution: 1) that the Corps prepare a Programmatic Impact Statement, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, that considers the cumulative impacts of the proposed operations from mine to port; and 2) that the Corps host a scoping hearing in Sandpoint to “determine the scope of an environmental review, explore alternatives and allow for public comment.”

Additionally, as part of the permitting process, the Corps accepts comments from the public during a specified period of time after an application is filed, which is generally 30 days. These open comment periods are the perfect opportunity for you to speak up and make your voice heard! This might sound like a daunting process, so Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper has worked to make providing your comments as easy as possible. You can find more information on the topic by visiting www.lakependoreillewaterkeeper.org/get-involved/coal-trains-2. Here you will find a useful fact sheet, a sample comment letter and a clickable link that allows you to directly submit your comments to the Corps and Members of Congress for the current open comment period. Please take a few minutes out of your day to help ensure that Bonner County, and all that makes it so special, is protected from Big Coal!

Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper is a non-profit organization that works to protect the water quality of Lake Pend Oreille and its associated waterways. Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper works in the public interest through education, partnership and advocacy to ensure that our waterways remain swimmable, fishable and drinkable for future generations. Please visit their website or call 208-597-7188 to learn more. Shannon Williamson is the executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.


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Author info

Shannon Williamson Shannon Williamson is Waterkeeper and Executive Director for Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper

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Homepage, Headlines, coal trains, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal Inc, Powder River Basin, Sandpoint train funnel

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