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Three Coal Trains Derail In One Week

On Monday, a coal train derailed in Washington on its way to Spokane, spilling tons of coal and coal dust alongside the tracks. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, a coal train near Chicago derailed bringing a bridge down with it and killing a passenger in a car below. Finally, on Wednesday night, a train near the small town of Pendleton, Texas derailed, spewing coal from 43 rail cars.

In other words, it’s been a bad week for coal trains.

Aside from the unfortunate motorist near Chicago, the train derailments luckily did not result in multiple human injuries or deaths. For residents of the Pacific Northwest, the three derailments are an ominous harbinger of the threat presented by the potential increase in the region’s coal train traffic.

With domestic demand for coal waning in the United States, coal companies seek to ship as much coal as possible from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to emerging Asian economies. Thus, there are six coal export terminal projects currently proposed at Pacific Northwest ports: Longview, Wash.; Bellingham, Wash.; Grays Harbor, Wash.; Coos Bay, Ore.; the Kinder Morgan terminal at Port of St. Helens, Ore.; and the Ambre Energy project with facilities at the Port of Morrow and the Port of St. Helens, Ore.

If the coal export terminals are constructed in Washington and Oregon, the region will see a dramatic increase in rail traffic as trains haul coal from the Powder River Basin to the ports. For example, according to the nonprofit group Coal Train Facts, if the proposed coal export terminal in Bellingham were to become operational, “the total number of coal train trips per day (arriving full, leaving empty) would be in the range of 16 to 18 (nine loaded and nine returning). Each of the coal trains would be approximately a mile and a half in length, made up of 125 to 150 cars.”

Common sense tells you that sometimes trains derail. Common sense also tells you that significantly increasing train traffic will result in more derailments. Therefore, this week’s three coal train derailments are an unpleasant prelude of what’s in store for Pacific Northwest communities if coal export facilities there become a reality.

“If we see a tremendous increase in coal trains, we’ll see a tremendous increase in derailments,” Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Washington’s Columbia Riverkeeper, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s that simple.”

Earthjustice’s legal team, led by attorney Jan Hasselman in Seattle, is working to stop the development of coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Hasselman and crew already successfully stopped the first attempt to build an export terminal in Longview, Wash., and recently sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, impelling the agency to conduct a programmatic environmental impact statement to examine the cumulative environmental impacts posed by the proposed coal export terminals.

As these derailments illustrate, the stakes are extremely high for the Pacific Northwest in the fight against the proposed coal export terminals. A similar derailment in downtown Seattle or in another heavily populated area has the potential to be an enormous disaster. Hopefully the potential impact of such a derailment will be seriously considered by the Army Corps of Engineers as they move through the process of reviewing proposals for export terminals.

Tags:  Coal, coal exports