County Health Board asks for inclusion in coal-related study – Bozeman Chronicle, July 27, 2012

July 31, 2012

Categories: Coal, Member news, Northern Plains Resource Council

Bozeman Chronicle

Gallatin Valley communities will join other towns asking to be part of a regional environmental study of the long-term effects associated with coal transportation.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health Thursday struggled to reach a 4-3 vote in favor of including the Gallatin Valley in an area-wide environmental impact statement. It joins Montana cities, including Missoula and Helena, and towns in Oregon and Washington.

Fifteen trains a day are now traveling between the Powder River Basin in Montana and the West Coast, although only two to three carry coal. But that number could increase if more shipping ports open, and that possibility is prompting protest from some people.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must create an EIS for potential ports in Washington, such as those in Cherry Point near Bellingham and Longview, in order to issue building permits. Under citizen pressure, city and state governments are asking that the EIS be expanded.

EIS studies often take at least a couple of years and such a massive undertaking would likely require putting coal shipments on hold.

The Corps has said it will decide this summer on what to include in the EIS, so time is short for towns to indicate their desire to be included.

In an early morning sequel to the July 10 Bozeman City Commission meeting, the health board heard testimony and public comment on health issues related to an increase in coal train traffic.

Montana Rail Link representative Jim Lewis expressed surprise over the amount of attention trains were suddenly receiving and addressed problem areas that opponents often bring up: coal dust, crossing delays and diesel emissions.

He said companies spray the coal with a binding liquid to keep the dust down, and trains use less diesel and contribute less emissions than semitrailer trucks.

Finally, MRL has measured the average wait time at crossings as less than 10 minutes, and in 25 years, no life or property has been lost because of crossing delays, Lewis said.

Lewis warned that the coal companies would take their business to Canada if they have to wait for an EIS.

“Most of our trains are already transporting other products like grain,” Lewis said. “Let’s really define what the issues are and work together to find solutions.”

Beth Kaeding of the Northern Plains Resource Council highlighted the train-caused health problems with traffic jams at crossings, diesel fumes, coal dust and noise, and the large sums of money coal companies stood to make.

“The vast majority of coal being shipped through Montana is Wyoming coal, so the Montana coal severance tax and the Montana (property) tax is not put on that Wyoming coal,” Kaeding said.

Of the 15 in attendance, around half got up to give reasons, both local and global, for their opposition to more coal trains.

However, Gary Gullickson, who works for Mystery Ranch next to the railroad tracks, asked the board to listen to arguments on both sides and said he hadn’t had problems with dust or crossing delays.

“This has expediency but not urgency,” Gullickson said. “Our No. 1 priority right now is the silent crossing.”

As the board began deliberations, a few were disinclined to draft a request to the Corps because they didn’t have enough evidence of a coal-dust problem and didn’t think an EIS would provide new data.

Board member Buck Taylor said train noise is nothing new and maybe it was best handled locally with MRL.

Board member Berk Knighton said he didn’t want to hold the railway or coal companies hostage but supported making the request.

“In the absence of coal dust, all the other things remain constant,” Knighton said. “But are we in a position where we should be asking people who do know to tell us what the answers are? Once we lose the opportunity, we don’t have any recourse until something happens.”

Board member Becky Franks said she would be more likely to vote for writing a letter if it included a request to collect more data.

After 45 minutes of discussion, the board voted by a slim margin to draft a request and assigned the task to an ad hoc committee.

After the meeting, Kaeding said the Corps may have agreed to an area-wide EIS without Gallatin County’s letter but it didn’t hurt.

“It adds to a constant application of constant pressure to get the Corps to do the right thing,” Kaeding said.

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