Home | News | Is Bonner County Getting Railroaded?

Is Bonner County Getting Railroaded?

Font size: Decrease font Enlarge font
Coal Train crossing Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Linda Mitchell. Coal Train crossing Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Linda Mitchell.

There's fuel to move, so get out of the way

Although used by man for thousands of years, new manufacturing processes developed in the mid Eighteenth century utilized fossil fuels as the driver of the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in an unprecedented increase in the standard of living for much of the ordinary people living in the countries that industrialized. But every silver lining has its cloud, and as we steadily deplete earth resources that developed over millennia, we are learning the full costs involved in our use of coal, oil and natural gas. Anthropogenic climate change might be the worst result to fly out of this Pandora’s box, but our attempts to extract an ever-more-difficult to reach resource have left a legacy that includes environmental degradation, public health risks, and a stomach-churning history littered with the appalling treatment of our fellow man.

With that as a background, Bonner County’s troubles related to fossil fuel (which extend into Sanders County, as well), may seem small. Nonetheless, they are very real, and highlight an uncomfortable fact for this community with a large preference for local control: that we don’t seem to have any control at all.

Around 500 miles to the east of us, for example, lies the Powder River Basin. Covering about 24,000 square miles and including parts of Montana and Wyoming, the Powder River Basin is rich in coal deposits, which supply approximately 40 percent of the coal used in the United States.

Go just a little north, and you’ve reached the Williston Basin, home to the Bakken oil fields. This roughly 200,000 square mile formation was rich in oil and heavily drilled; with the increased use of hydrofracturing technology (fracking), which allows access to the harder-to-reach oil previously not considered recoverable, the USGS reported in 2013 that there are approximately 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil remaining in the Bakken. So much oil is currently being produced in the Bakken that it has outstripped the means available to move the oil out of the area. (While that sounds like a lot, it might be worth remembering that the United States uses almost 19 billion barrels of oil every single day. That means all the oil in the Bakken could fuel the U.S. for just a little over one year.)

But production of fossil fuels means little if they can’t be sent where they’re wanted, and the key to doing that is getting permits for two new export facilities in Washington (Cherry Point, near Bellingham, and Millennium Bulk Terminals near Longview), along with a coal transloading facility near Boardman, Ore. 

If those facilities are permitted, the only viable way to get there via train goes right smack through Sandpoint, Idaho; we are looking at a potential for train traffic to more than double going through our area. The impact of such an increase could be huge, yet only one entity involved in this permitting process,  the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, involved in the Cherry Point permit, has agreed to look at impacts beyond the immediate port area prior to issuing permits.

Currently, over 50 trains a day pass through Sandpoint, and with 144 railroad crossings in Bonner County, we have all spent time waiting on one to go through. What is surprising to many in Bonner County, is finding out that the increase in rail traffic through this county is not something they have any say in. Even if Cherry Point is denied a permit due to impacts on waypoint communities, neither MBT nor the facility in Oregon need to consider impacts we might see here caused by their permitting process.

But it’s not just more coal that might pass through our area. An increase in train traffic carrying oil products— trains that opponents call “bomb trains” due to the impact when one derails and explodes when going through a populated area (as happened in Le-Megantic, Quebec last July, killing 42 with another 5 still missing and presumed dead)—increases that number another 60 percent.

Those oil trains were the subject of controversy earlier this year, as states demanded information on how many were traveling over their borders and Burlington Northern Santa Fe refused to provide it, stating there were serious safety concerns in providing the information. An emergency order issued by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation forced BNSF’s hand, and the information was provided to states in July, with the warning that it should only be shared with “need to know” officials due to the stated safety concerns, and due to the fact that BNSF considered the information to be “proprietary and confidential business trade secret.” The state of Montana disagreed, and released the information, which showed that 0 to 9 oil trains move through Sanders County each week, with another 13 to 16 trains moving through Lincoln County. Although Idaho has not yet released this data from BNSF, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess where they go when they leave the Montana counties on our borders.

BNSF moves about 80 percent of the oil from the Bakken, but Montana Rail Link also moves some. They revealed (without an emergency order) that they move about 3 trains each week through Montana, each carrying around 1 million gallons of oil.

According to a report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils, oil train traffic may well increase to 11 trains per day.

You’re probably concerned enough already that we needn’t mention trains carrying other haz/mat materials like chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, so let’s move away from the train tracks, most of which, by the way, are “uncontrolled” (i.e. without crossing gates) in Bonner County.

Early this year, it was announced that a company looking to move an enormous piece of equipment used in the fracking industry from the Port of Wilma near Clarkston, Wash. to Great Falls, Mont. was considering a route that would take it up Highway 95 to Sandpoint, where it would then head east on Scenic Highway 200. As of May, it appeared this idea had been shelved, but in a surprise move in late July, the Idaho Transportation Department issued a permit for just such a move to Mammoet Transportation. But Mammoet isn’t the one moving the equipment—Bigge Crane & Rigging Co. is, and currently the load is slated to leave the port at some point in the evening of August 10 or early morning of August 11. Moving at speeds between 5 mph and 35 mph, it should arrive on Sandpoint’s Long Bridge around 2 am on August 14 at the earliest—barring any surprises. (The River Journal’s Scott Clawson has put forward Cocolalla Flats as a potential surprise, given the fill that underlies the road in that area.)

This particular load is what’s called a Mega-load. According to the permit issued to Mammoet (ITD says a new permit will be issued to Bigge), it consists of two pusher trucks and two puller trucks with a trailer in between. The load is 28 feet wide, 441 feet long, and weighs 802 tons (or 1.6 million pounds). It’s said to be the heaviest thing to ever be hauled in Hwy. 95; the previous record holder only weighed 400,000 pounds, or less than a third of the weight of this August’s haul.

For comparison, a football field is 360 feet long; the average weight of a car is 4,000 pounds; and the minimum lane width for an interstate freeway is 12 feet.

On a trip this weekend to do some measurements of the highway (28 feet did not seem to allow for much clearance in spots, at least to me), I ran into a couple of guys with Bigge Crane, marking out a spot in Hope where a temporary bridge (a “jumper”) will have to be built. Unwilling to be quoted as they are unauthorized to be company spokesmen, they nonetheless assured me that the load Bigge will be bringing through is not as large as the load Mammoet received an ITD permit for. Bigge’s load is slated to be only 20 feet wide, and the portion of the load that includes the trailer and equipment (not the puller/pusher trucks) will “only” weigh around 700,000 pounds (350 tons), which is about half the weight that was estimated for the trailer on the Mammoet permit.

If traveling through Sandpoint and points east seems like a roundabout way of getting from Washington to Great Falls, rest assured there was plenty of opposition to moving the load via other communities, from both the Forest Service and the Nez Perce Tribe. And if the move is successful, rest assured that this might become the go-to mega-load route in the future. The words of Linwood Laughy, founder of FightingGoliath.org and written in an opinion piece for High Country News that opposed the movement of megaloads on Idaho’s Hwy. 12, have resonance here in the communities through which Scenic Byway 200 passes today: “The companies say they must travel this remote route to send gargantuan mining equipment to northern Alberta’s tar sands. We say the corridor is a national treasure, a magnet for tourists and not a safe route for these monster loads.”

In addition, Highway 200 from Kootenai through at least Trestle Creek is currently experiencing “construction season.” Although you can drive on new asphalt within a couple days, it generally takes about a year for asphalt to cure, or fully harden. When temperatures are high (pushing the 100 degree mark as they have been here recently), even old asphalt can soften, and new asphalt can be remarkably gooey. I don’t think there’s any studies out there that show the impact that something weighing 802 tons has on gooey new asphalt—but I’m betting we’ll have a pretty good idea of what that impact looks like sometime after the middle of the month. And if the result is detrimental? Don’t be surprised if taxpayers have to pony up for road repairs on the ‘new’ road PDQ.

The demand for fossil fuels requires that those fuels be moved from their original source, and as a friend of mine likes to point out, if you see that as a problem, then you must recognize that your own use of fossil fuels is a part of that problem. Yet that is not the only issue involved in the increases of this type of movement through Bonner County and our neighboring counties. There is an impact to this movement that never seems to be accounted for by those who benefit the most from doing it. Indeed, an article written by Kate Galbraith for the Texas Tribune, talking about the costs of “super heavy” truck traffic, points out that “trucking companies and the industries they serve rarely shoulder the cost of fixing the damage, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single state road.” 

Even worse, however, is that idea that the people who live and work in a community have no say over significant actions that take place in that community. The lack of legal avenues with which to oppose these types of activities lead some to believe that Bonner County’s borders, and maybe its railroad crossings as well, should feature signs reading, “Welcome to Bend Over County, Idaho.” 

Because ITD will not issue the actual permit that will be given to Bigge Crane for movement of this mega-load through our county until right before the load is moved, residents have little opportunity to evaluate and understand what will be coming down the road.  The first time this happens, it’s shame on them. If it happens again, however, it will be shame on us.


The blog Sightline Daily features a comprehensive analysis of train crossings from Sandpoint all the way to points west here: bit.ly/1APuOpH. The letter from BNSF to the state of Montana regarding coal trails can be read here: http://bit.ly/UXhC0A. The report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils can be read at http://bit.ly/1s6ElTm The article, “Heavy Loads, Some from Wind and Gas, Damage Texas Roads” can be found here: online at http://bit.ly/XyxRmQ.

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (0 posted)

total: | displaying:

Post your comment

  • Bold
  • Italic
  • Underline
  • Quote

Please enter the code you see in the image:

  • Email to a friend Email to a friend
  • Print version Print version
  • Plain text Plain text

Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Homepage, Headlines, Idaho Dept of Transportation, coal trains, Powder River Basin, bomb trains, oil trains, BNSF, Bigge Crane, Mammoet, megaloads, Bakken, Williston Basin

Rate this article