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Editorial: Coal train impact study should have tight focus

Spokane has been a railroad town for more than a century, with the scars to prove it. Dozens of trains a day rumble across the Rathdrum Prairie, over the downtown viaduct and across the Latah Creek trestle to coastal ports, or inland depots and warehouses.

Now, the possibility that traffic might be augmented by trains carrying coal has lifted what has been an ordinary occurrence to extraordinary hazard, at least in the minds of many among the hundreds who have turned out for scoping meetings related to the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Let’s bring the discussion back down to Earth.

The proposed $660 million terminal at Bellingham would be able to unload 10 trains per day: nine coal, one wheat, potash or some other commodity. The project would generate a substantial number of new jobs and other economic benefits for Whatcom County and the state of Washington.

The pluses for communities between the mines in Wyoming and the port are less identifiable. What Spokane residents will surely get is more trains. Project foes claim those trains will spew more diesel fumes and dust that put asthmatics and others with poor lung function at risk.

In Spokane Valley, they will interrupt traffic more frequently at crossings, potentially impeding the passage of emergency crews.

Opponents want those possible effects considered in the environmental impact statement the scoping hearings are intended to shape. Beyond that, they and Washington officials want the study to encompass the impacts not just of Gateway Pacific, but all the proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon.

Although we have advocated that overarching approach, we now think confining the study to the Bellingham port and associated train traffic is a more supportable tack. In fact, coal train traffic through Spokane will grow substantially because ports in British Columbia are increasing their coal export capacity. That coal will also come from Wyoming and Montana, where mines yield a cleaner and cheaper fuel than the Chinese – the customer – can produce themselves.

BNSF Railway says that with 25 percent fewer trains running through Spokane since the recession, initially the coal trains will merely be backfilling for lost traffic. Eventually, those trains will be back, but tracks through Spokane should be able to handle it.

But can motorists, or police and fire crews who would have to wait out more trains blocking at-grade crossings? Greater Spokane Incorporated and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council have worked the Bridging the Valley problem for almost a decade. An EIS that addresses the issue would be a valuable addition to proposals for federal and state funding of at least one new elevated crossing.

Suggestions the study go beyond that for Spokane are not realistic. If coal dust and diesel fumes are indeed a menace, they will surely be concentrated, and analyzed in the EIS, at the terminal.

The issue is not whether the trains will come, but where they will go, and who will get the economic benefits.

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