The state Department of Ecology (DOE) will study the impact of coal trains on Kent and other cities as part of its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be released in 2014 or later in connection with the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal near Bellingham to ship coal to China.
As many as 18 trains per day could run through Kent if the shipping facility is built. The state DOE decided in late July it would conduct a full-scope study.
"It's an unprecedented scope that includes the environmental impacts to air, land and water from the mines in Montana and Wyoming, through the entire shipment process including short term and long term global effects of burning coal in China and other points in Asia," said city of Kent transportation engineering manager Steve Mullen in an email.
That includes studying Kent and other cities along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks.
"(State) Ecology will look at a wide range of issues from rail impacts; how the rail and ship traffic would affect human health, the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions from rail and ship traffic, and most importantly for Kent – a detailed assessment of rail transportation on representative communities in Washington," Mullen said.
City staff members have been in contact with state DOE officials in an effort to become one of the representative communities that will receive an in-depth study, Mullen said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Sept. 6 it will limit its study to the immediate area where the new coal terminal and shipping facility will be developed at Cherry Point.
Groups in favor of the proposed coal terminal were pleased to hear the Corps wouldn't expand its study.
“Business, labor and trade leaders have expressed concern over Ecology's decision," said Lauri Hennessey, Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports spokeswoman in a prepared statement. "Now the federal government has joined those ranks. Completing these projects without delay must remain a priority. Our communities and families who are desperately in need of the thousands of family wage jobs and millions in revenue this project would create should not be held hostage to bureaucracy.”
Even without a wide scope of study, Mullen said the Corps review could halt the project.
"The majority of their review will involve mitigation for the damages to the Lummi Indian Tribe burial grounds and fishing grounds," he said. "The Corps has broad powers to deny permits that infringe on tribal rights. If the Lummi reject the mitigation proposals, the permit most likely will not go forward."
Whatcom County is the third agency that will conduct an environmental review.
"Whatcom County will decide on permits for the terminal and any development associated with that as well as issuing shoreline permits," Mullen said. "They will also look at the transportation impacts to local communities, especially Bellingham and Ferndale."
In Kent, city officials have several issues they want the DOE and its consultant to study.
"We are concerned about the extra train traffic and its effects on congestion, safety, air quality, water quality and the degree to which the increased rail traffic and pollution will hinder economic development within the valley," Mullen said.
The state has hired the Colorado-based consulting firm CH2M Hill to conduct the environmental review which is expected to take more than two years. The DOE, Army Corps and Whatcom County each will review the findings and make determinations on the permits, Mullen said.
Seattle-based SSA Marine Inc., has submitted applications to develop the largest coal export facility in North America at Cherry Point. If the facility is built, Kent would like numerous mitigation items to lessen the impact on the city.
"The city of Kent would like financial assistance to grade separate the BNSF tracks from east/west roads, and to complete improvements needed to obtain a (railroad) Quiet Zone in the downtown area," Mullen said. "The city would like all coal trains to be covered in such a manner as to prevent coal dust from settling in rivers and wetlands.
"We’d like them to study whether or not coal transport will preclude the transport of more favorable commodities or even prevent increased passenger trains in the future."
Mullen said the heavy train traffic impacts Kent more than neighboring cities.
"Kent has more at-grade crossings than our neighbors and the bulk of those are in our downtown urban center," he said. "The noise impacts negatively affect residential, retail and commercial areas downtown."
The impact of coal dust coming off the trains remains a top concern for city officials.
"This is one of the biggest unknowns," Mullen said. "BNSF estimates that each uncovered coal car loses between 500 and 2,000 pounds of coal dust in transit. It is unknown how much of this will affect any one community (human health, water quality and marine habitat). Since our year-round weather tends to be wet and often windy, we’d like to know what the impacts will be to damp air saturated with coal dust or rain drenched drippings from coal cars. These are questions we hope can be answered in the environmental analysis."
State DOE Timeline for coal train study
• Summer 2013 - Began preparing draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS): The purpose of an EIS is to provide the public and agency decision makers with information on likely adverse effects of a proposed project, as well as reasonable alternatives and measures to reduce those effects.
• 2014 or later – Issue draft EIS, open public comment period, have public hearing: The draft EIS will be circulated so that the public and other agencies are given an opportunity to comment on its accuracy and content before it is finalized. The co-lead agencies will consider and respond to public comments in the final EIS.
• 2014 or 2015 – Issue final EIS that will include responses to the comments made on the draft EIS.