Risks posed by rail shipments of coal and oil drew increased attention last week with a series of announcements involving expansion of energy markets in the region.
Environmentalists issued a report estimating that fossil fuels could bring 82 trains a day through Spokane and Sandpoint a decade from now. BNSF Railway officials said those estimates are unsubstantiated.
At the same time, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., last week released government figures showing that Federal Railroad Administration inspectors found 13,141 rail track defects in her state since 2006. BNSF Railway was issued 721 written violation notices based on those defects.
BNSF Railway said it is making safety a high priority through annual track upgrades and the prospective purchase of 5,000 “next-generation” oil tank cars. The railroad spent $100 million on track improvements in Washington last year and $4.3 billion across its system. BNSF officials also said they have been a leader in developing better designs for rail tank car safety.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads confirmed an agreement calling on railroads to slow their oil trains through major cities, increase track inspections and bolster emergency response planning along routes that carry trains hauling up to 3 million gallons of oil each, the Associated Press reported.
BNSF said it has been helping finance hazardous materials training in local communities.
Concern about energy shipments has heated up since two trains collided in Casselton, N.D., last December in a fiery disaster that forced evacuation of 2,400 residents.
A crash in Quebec last July killed 47 people when a runaway oil train blew up.
The BNSF mainline for oil and coal shipments passes through Sandpoint, North Idaho, Spokane and points to the south and west.
Last Tuesday, the Western Organization of Resource Councils updated its 2012 study warning about energy rail shipments in coming years.
Within a decade, the BNSF mainline here could be handling 45 to 60 coal trains and another 22 oil trains a day, the report said. The report estimated the rail capacity between the Spokane and Sandpoint at about 70 trains a day. In addition, demand for shipping could cause prices to increase for other commodities such as grain, the report said.
The report is available at heavytrafficahead.org.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said in a telephone news conference that the anticipated increase in energy trains “will disrupt emergency responders, pollute our rivers and disrupt distribution of agricultural goods. It is time for us to find a solution that is equitable for all of the communities that live on these rail lines.”
Stuckart has led a call to require environmental study of the effects of coal trains in the Inland Northwest as part of the approval process for proposed coal ports west of the Cascades.
Currently, BNSF sends between one and four coal trains through Spokane each day, said Gus Melonas, regional spokesman for the railroad. In addition, the line is averaging averages just over one oil train a day, he said.
The railroad said any prediction of future energy shipments depends on market and regulatory forces that cannot be determined in advance.
Coal terminals are proposed for Boardman, Ore., and Longview, Wash., on the Columbia River, and near Bellingham in northern Puget Sound.
Oil extracted from shale rock in North Dakota is being processed at Washington refineries and shipped from an existing terminal on the Columbia River.
Seven new oil terminals are proposed in Washington. The largest of those projects sought in Vancouver would bring four trains a day through Spokane.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers in January complained that oil trains are causing delays on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which arrives here from the east as a single train and then splits into a pair of trains westbound to Portland and Seattle. The Empire Builder merges here from two trains to a single train on the eastbound journey.
Airport CEO gets 15 percent raise
Spokane International Airport CEO Lawrence Krauter got a glowing job review that landed him a healthy salary increase for 2014.
Airport board members said the raise brought Krauter’s salary in line with those of airport CEOs in other cities and was needed to keep him from leaving for a better-paying job.
Krauter was hired three years ago at $165,000 a year. His salary was increased to about $200,000 a year later.
The Spokane Airport Board approved an increase to $230,000 this year following a salary survey that showed him making less than comparable airport CEOs, according to Skip Davis, board chairman.
The airport doesn’t receive local tax revenues or funds from the city or county. Its operations are funded by user fees, parking, tenant rents and airline landing fees.
Davis said Krauter has been a leader in airport funding issues nationally and has brought a large number of projects, new businesses and innovations to Spokane’s airports.
Luggage carts are now available for free. Rocking chairs line waiting areas. Free Wi-Fi service was brought to the airport in 2011 and recently expanded to 40 free minutes from 20.
When Krauter was hired, he was asked to act as both the CEO and the chief operations officer, allowing the airport to cut a top management position from its budget, Davis said.
“He is clearly an asset to Spokane and the airports,” Davis said.
County Commissioner Al French, also an airport board member, said Krauter brings skills to the job that “Spokane has never had.”