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(Left) Tracks run northwest from the Idaho-Montana border along the edge of Lake Pend Oreille and on to Sandpoint—a major conduit for commodity shipments from the Midwest to the Washington coast. (Right) Kally Thurman, owner of an art gallery/cafe in Hope, says coal shipments might be a “dirty dance,” but she’d rather get down with Warren Buffett than Dick Cheney any day.

Export goal for coal mined in Montana and Wyoming: 110 million tons per year. Estimated number of trains needed to transport that coal to coastal ports in Washington: Up to 40 per day. Average length of a coal train: 1.5 miles. Amount of coal and coal dust that can blow off a coal train: 500 pounds per car. More than 30 tons per train per trip. Total production in the Powder River Basin in 2009: 455 million short tons. Growth of Asian demand for United States coal imports: 176 percent from 2009-2010. Amount of coal imported by China in 2009: 125.8 million tons. Triple the year before. Estimated demand for imported coal in the AsiaPacific market: 140 million metric tons per year. Estimated demand by 2015: 220 million to 260 million metric tons. Amount of carbon dioxide produced by burning 1 ton of coal: About 2 tons. Amount of CO2 produced by burning 110 million tons of coal: 220 million tons per year.

Source: “Exporting Powder River Basin Coal: Risks and Costs,” Western Organization of Resource Councils. Sept. 2011

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Terminal near Longview, Wash.—across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore.—and plans to ship 5.7 million tons of coal per year. As in the case of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, that project is also under fire from a consortium of environmental groups. With some of the biggest financial muscle in the world pushing the project on both ends, from the mines in the Powder River Basin to the ports on the coast, that leaves every community along the shipping route stuck in the middle. And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the Inland Northwest, through which shipments—regardless of their destination port—will almost certainly be funneled.

THE FUNNEL Looking at a map of rail lines in the western United States, one is struck by two patterns. The web of tracks fan out from the Midwest and converge into two dense choke points in the Mountain West. One in Salt Lake City, a vast hub for the Union Pacific Railroad, and the other in the Idaho Panhandle—smack dab on Sandpoint, where not only UP but Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and the much smaller Montana Rail Link meet before hitting the central rail yard in Spokane, Wash., and heading west and south. They call it “the funnel” and for good reason. About 50 trains, and sometimes as many as 70, travel through Sandpoint every day. The blare of horns is so commonplace that locals don’t even hear them and commuters habitually plan to be stopped at any of the more than 160 rail crossings located in Bonner County alone. Should the coastal terminals open and coal shipments ramp up to meet an export market of 110 million tons per year, estimates cited in the WORC analysis suggest that rail traffic would need to increase by about 40 unit trains—some more than a mile-and-a-half long—traveling to or from the ports every day. Along with that traffic would almost certainly come increased diesel emissions, wear and tear on the rail infrastructure and congestion, though officials with BNSF maintain the line through Sandpoint and Spokane has more

than enough capacity to handle the traffic. What really has environmental groups worried, though, are threats to air and water quality from the loads themselves. Some studies, including the WORC analysis, estimate that each coal car loses as much as 500 pounds of coal and dust, amounting to more than 30 tons per train, during each trip. In the case of North Idaho, where the BNSF tracks run for miles along the northeastern shore of Lake Pend Oreille, that potentiality alone is starting to raise a ruckus. “There’s a lot of significant things that people should be concerned about, but what we’re worried about are the impacts to the lake,” said Shannon Williamson, who heads the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper organization. “The coal dust is quite significant, and when it flies off, it goes into the surrounding land and water. What’s worse, if there’s a derailment, it would be catastrophic. It would be horrific—like an oil spill—and that could be a real possibility.” Even the rail companies admit that coal dust is a danger, though officials with BNSF, which is itself owned by Buffett’s mammoth Berkshire Hathaway, say the biggest threat stems from coal dust’s corrosive effect on the rails not human health. “At the origin location—the Powder River Basin—coal dust has posed a serious threat to the stability of our track,” said Texas-based BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg. “But starting Nov. 1, we’ve taken measures to reduce coal dust. What we’ve said is, ‘Shipper, you need to reduce your coal dust by 85 percent.’” That is being accomplished by a request that coal loads be packed in the shape of a bread loaf to keep material from blowing off the sides. Still, loads are not required to be covered—and it costs time and money to do so—and without sealing the cars, it’s inevitable that particulates and even chunks of coal will come loose. That’s nothing to worry about either, Lundsberg said, unless you live near the mine. “If you take a dusty book off the shelf and blow on it, dust blows off the first time. If you blow on it a second time, no dust blows off,” WWW. B O I S E WE E KLY. C O M

Boise Weekly Vol. 20 Issue 32  

Idaho's Only Alternative

Boise Weekly Vol. 20 Issue 32  

Idaho's Only Alternative