June 30, 2013 in Opinion

Coal impact study needed

Ben Stuckart
 

More than 800 people turned out for Spokane’s public hearing on coal export last December, some from as far away as Eastern Montana. The vast majority of them called on the government to study the full range of potential impacts of plans to make the Northwest a conveyor belt for 100 million tons of coal every year from mines in Montana and Wyoming to the West Coast. 

The hundreds of people who came out in Spokane were joined by thousands more at hearings across the region in a show of public concern that state agencies called “unprecedented” in the history of permitting major development projects in Washington.

In announcing last week that it won’t consider the full range of effects of coal export, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to acknowledge the risks facing people living in dozens of cities and towns along the rail shipping route from Billings to Bellingham; communities that, like Spokane, will see little if any benefit, but bear many of the health, transportation and economic costs.

With our federal government refusing to take a comprehensive, region-wide approach, we need Gov. Jay Inslee and other state leaders in Washington and Oregon to take a much more active role.

Although Spokane is hundreds of miles away from the proposed terminals, it is ground zero for coal trains. If all three proposed terminals were built, Spokane would see about 40 coal trains per day – empty and full – rolling through town. Our air quality would suffer, as would traffic for commuters, emergency responders and truckers. In addition, taxpayers could wind up paying millions of dollars for new infrastructure to accommodate increased train traffic.

That’s why the City Council passed a unanimous resolution calling for a thorough analysis of the impact of coal trains on the citizens of Spokane.

One of Spokane’s strengths is its geographic advantage as a hub for goods moving from inland to the coast. Timber, grain and other agricultural products carried by trains benefit our economy, but the rail system has limits, and we are almost at capacity.

One 70-mile section of railroad between Sandpoint and Spokane known as “The Funnel” is one of the busiest segments in the Northwest rail system and is a vital connector for inland farmers who need to get their crops efficiently to coastal and overseas markets.

In a recent news article, a planner for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council said the funnel can handle about 78 trains a day. That limit gets pushed during harvest season. He also noted that timber shipments sometimes get forced onto trucks to avoid lengthy delays. Imagine adding another 40 coal trains per day to that already congested corridor. Predicting the exact impact is difficult, but it could be substantial and have a ripple effect throughout the Inland Empire economy.

Costs for taxpayers also need to be thoroughly understood. A study commissioned by a group of Northwest ports looked at how coal exports would impact rail traffic in the region. The study concluded railroads could handle the new demand, but only if improvements are made; fixes that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Historically, state and local taxpayers have paid most of the tab for such projects.

For Spokane, that could mean more delay in completing the connection between Highway 395 and Interstate 90 as tens of millions of transportation dollars are diverted to projects urgently needed to make way for coal trains. An honest evaluation of the economics of coal export must consider the costs to taxpayers, businesses and property owners along the rail lines, and the broader economy of the state and region.

Looking at the big picture of coal export also means considering how burning additional coal would accelerate climate change, which scientists say means more frequent and severe droughts, and wildfires for the Inland Northwest. I was heartened to hear about President Obama’s plans to address climate, but so far coal export isn’t on his list.

We need our state leaders to step in. We can’t just draw a line around the proposed coal export terminals and study the on-site effects. Coal export promises far-reaching impacts that extend from the coast, across the Pacific Ocean and back to the mines. The future of our city, the region and our changing climate are at stake. The permitting process must reflect that.

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane City Council.

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