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Kent City Council raises concerns about coal trains

Eighteen coal trains per day could start rolling through Kent if a proposed Gateway Pacific terminal is built near Bellingham to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to China. - COURTESY PHOTO, Paul K. Anderson
Eighteen coal trains per day could start rolling through Kent if a proposed Gateway Pacific terminal is built near Bellingham to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to China.
— image credit: COURTESY PHOTO, Paul K. Anderson

If as many as 18 or more coal trains per day start rolling through Kent, city officials want to try to reduce the impact to residents, businesses and the environment.

The City Council knows any chance to halt the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal near Bellingham to ship coal to China could meet similar results as trying to stop a runaway train.

But the council agreed it must try to do something to mitigate the impact on Kent if trains run from Wyoming and Montana to Spokane through the Columbia River Gorge and up north through Auburn, Kent and Tukwila on the way to Bellingham. The seven-member council and Mayor Suzette Cooke signed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scoping letter Tuesday night in an effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Ecology (DOE) to look at impacts on Kent as part of the EIS.

"I'm not sure what we ask for would mitigate the impact but we have to at least try," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson during a Public Works Committee meeting about coal trains.

Albertson said the city wants steps such as to cover and secure the coal in the train cars; money for construction of overpasses or underpasses so streets do not turn into gridlock; ways to lessen the noise impact; and control of air emissions from the trains.

"It's very important to weigh in," Councilwoman Dana Ralph said. "We might not have much control whether this happens or not happens but my main concern as we go along is to mitigate the impacts to our residents and businesses and this is the first step in that process."

Seattle-based SSA Marine Inc., has submitted applications to develop the largest coal export facility in North America at Cherry Point, said Steve Mullen, city transportation engineering manager, in a report to the Public Works Committee. Coal mined from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming would be hauled by trains along Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail lines.

As many as 18 trains (nine full, nine empty on return) would cause crossing gates to go down for additional one hour in Kent. Gates go down about 2 1/2 hours per day now.

"We have concerns about additional delays downtown," Mullen said. "The 1.5-mile long trains would add 51 seconds of delay at each (of Kent's eight) crossings and block traffic from South 259th Street to James Street simultaneously which means nobody moves."

Each coal train take up to five locomotives to pull up to 150 cars, Mullen said. He added research has shown trains with the uncovered cars can lose from 500 pounds up to 2,000 pounds of coal dust during a trip from Montana to Cherry Point.

Courtney Wallace, Seattle-based BNSF Railway regional director of public affairs, said BNSF has taken operating steps to greatly reduce the loss of coal dust and that the issue is no longer a problem because of a new rule passed two years ago.

"Coal dust posed a serious threat to the stability of the track structure operational integrity of BNSF’s rail lines in the Powder River Basin (Montana and Wyoming)," Wallace said in an email. "Railcars properly loaded at origin effectively address coal dust. BNSF implemented an operating rule in 2011 requiring our customers to properly load and treat coal carloads with a surface crusting agent to prevent dust. We believe that our operating rule effectively addresses coal dust."

Wallace said about 50 trains of all types go through Kent daily. She said grain trains average about 110 cars. She declined to reveal how many coal trains go through town now or the destinations of those trains.

Mullen said one or two coal trains go through Kent daily. He said the trains go to British Columbia terminals for the coal to be shipped to China.

BNSF confirmed that as many as 18 coal trains per day could be added to the Kent route.

"The Gateway Pacific Terminal is being permitted to handle one to nine loaded trains per day," Wallace said. "At maximum capacity, the terminal could handle nine loaded trains a day and nine empty trains a day. BNSF has three major east-west routes through Washington and exact routing would depend on several factors, such as customer needs, weather and freight volumes."

The other routes are through Stevens Pass or Stampede Pass. Mullen said, however, that the Columbia River Gorge looms as the anticipated route because Stevens Pass already has a lot of train traffic while it's doubtful Stampede Pass can handle loaded coal trains but might carry empty trains.

Other concerns include the loud noise from 18 additional train horns each day; the inability of emergency vehicles to respond to calls; the impact on school buses and Metro buses that would be delayed at crossings; track conflict with Sound Transit and Amtrak trains; and the overall quality of life downtown, Mullen said.

The deadline is Monday, Jan. 21 for submitting comments about what the EIS should analyze. The draft EIS could be done in 2014 when public comment will again be taken before the final EIS is issued in 2014 or 2015, according to the state DOE website.

"Regardless of the merits of shipping coal to China to burn and the exhaust coming back across the ocean to us, I have concerns with that, but there is the fundamental concern about the impact to traffic to health and to noise," Councilman Dennis Higgins said. "This is the bare minimum we can do by becoming part of the record with the EIS letter. It's the right thing to do at this time and we need to keep looking at other options as we go forward."

Mullen said in his report to the Public Works Committee that substantial taxpayer investment may be required to support infrastructure to mitigate some of these potential adverse impacts and that it is questionable whether damages to local businesses, regional identity, communities and fisheries could ever be adequately mitigated.

"The tracks are mere steps from where we are sitting," Albertson said from the meeting at City Hall. "This would be a huge impact on downtown."

Ralph said there are numerous potential impacts, with traffic the biggest.

"Just the increase in traffic alone if you don't address any of the environmental or noise concerns, the impact it has on moving traffic through the downtown core is enough for action," Ralph said.

BNSF officials say additional train traffic means an economic boost.

"Freight traffic will increase with or without coal export," Wallace said. "Washington’s economy is built on trade and the ports. And demand is increasing domestically for all goods as the population increases. That’s a good thing. For the U.S. and Washington’s economy."

For more information or to comment about the proposed terminal, go to www.ecy.wa.gov/geographic/gatewaypacific/.

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