Coal use in China begins to hit home: Potential jump in train traffic subject of forum – Great Falls Tribune, March 27, 2013

March 27, 2013

Categories: Agriculture, Coal, Events, Northern Plains Resource Council

By Karl Puckett

Conservation groups warned Tuesday that north central Montana residents could see a significant increase in rail shipments of coal through the area if more coal is developed in southeastern Montana, as proposed, and shipped to the West Coast for export to Asia.

“People just need to be aware this is something that could be happening to them,” said Beth Kaeding of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which arranged a forum on coal car traffic with Citizens for Clean Energy and Missouri River Citizens.

Kaeding said more coal cars moving through the state will mean more than inconvenience. She cited health effects from added diesel fumes and coal dust, the potential for more derailments and more traffic that could results in delays for emergency responders.

But Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud, a northcentral railroad town, said a boost in coal shipments would be good for Montana.

“I’m very positive about coal movements out of Montana,” said Bonderud, citing more more jobs for rail workers and revenue from coal taxes.

Kaeding, however, said that most of the coal likely would be developed in the Wyoming portion of the Powder River Basin, meaning Montana will not be able to tax it.

“But the impacts of that coal transport will be felt by us here in Montana,” she said.

The forum, which featured four speakers including Kaeding and Bonderud, drew about 40 residents to the Great Falls Public Library to hear about increasing coal exports and what it could mean for northcentral Montana, including Great Falls.

Kaeding said that Arch Coal’s plans for a large coal mine in the Powder River Basin, and up to five additional export terminals in West Coast, point to a large increase in coal traffic through the state in the future including Great Falls.

“We’re not saying it’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “We’re not saying all five ports are going to get built. But this is what the coal companies are talking about.”

At the meetings, Northern Plains is attempting to explain the connection between future coal development in southeastern Montana, construction of the terminals on the West Coast and subsequent increase in coal traffic through Montana, she said. Most of the coal from the Powder River Basin, one of the top coal-producing areas of the country, once was shipped mostly south and east to U.S. power plants, Kaeding said.

With domestic demand declining, Northern Plains says coal companies are now planning major increases in exports particularly to China.

“This is extremely cheap coal for China,” said Kaeding, explaining that coal is more expensive to mine in China.

She says Montana could see an additional 30 trains a day and up to 64 trains depending on how much coal is developed.

BNSF Railway, which serves Montana, has noted that not all of the coal produced in the Powder River basin is shipped on its rail lines through the state.

“I don’t think that much coal is going to move that’s predicted,” said Bonderud, the Shelby mayor.

He thinks a balance can be struck between protecting the environment and the economic benefits of coal development. Nobody from BNSF Railway spoke at the meeting.

Northern Plains has made previous presentations in Bozeman, Livingston, Columbia Falls, Billings, Missoula and Helena about the potential for increased coal car traffic.

A rail line out of the Powder River Basin areas goes through Billings and splits into two lines near Laurel, Kaeding said. One goes west. The other turns north toward Great Falls and continues to the Hi-Line turning west south of Glacier National Park, she said.

Arlo Skari, a Chester-area farmer, noted there has been a tremendous increase in agricultural exports from Montana.

“That’s why we’re so concerned about the railroad being plugged up,” Skari said.

Residents asked questions including what route the coal would take out of the state, the collection of coal severance taxes, whether bridges over the Missouri River would be upgraded and what Great Falls residents could do to make sure local taxpayers are not required to pay for any related infrastructure improvements that occur in the city as a result of added coal shipments.

Bonderud said he wasn’t privy to information on bridge improvements but said BNSF is investing heavily in the Laurel to Shelby line. Railroads certainly consider the weight of trains in infrastructure improvements, he said.

The biggest worry, Bonderud said, would be increased shipments of Bakken oil field crude and coal past Glacier National Park.

Aart Dolman of Great Falls said he worries about the one-track line that crosses the Missouri River, and Skari said he also wants to see more infrastructure improvements to handle increased traffic.

“Please don’t think we’re making war on BNSF,” said Skari, noting that the railroad is a big part of Montana communities.



220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 248-1154