Study coal shipments’ environmental effects, says Missoula councilor – Missoulian, May 15, 2012

May 16, 2012

Categories: Clean Energy, Climate change, Coal, News


With potential increases in coal train traffic through Missoula, City Councilman Dave Strohmaier is calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the widespread impacts – including ones in Montana – of building Pacific Coast export facilities for the fuel.

“My most immediate goal is that we would actually have scoping meetings, or public meetings, here in Montana and elsewhere along the proposed shipment route,” the Ward 1 councilor said Tuesday.

Strohmaier, who has convened public meetings with Montana Rail Link officials and railyard neighbors on the effects of train traffic, plans to present a letter Wednesday to the Missoula City Council Conservation Committee for its support. The letter is addressed to the Army Corps of Engineers, the body that reviews the planned export terminals.

“On behalf of the people of the City of Missoula, the Missoula City Council respectfully requests that you prepare a comprehensive programmatic environmental impact statement for the numerous proposed coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington,” reads the draft letter. “We also request that you hold public hearings in Montana in order to gather public testimony from all affected people. Missoula and other Montana cities will be significantly impacted from coal that will be transported by train from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to terminals along the Pacific Coast.”

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, he writes, “such analysis is allowed for, and most likely required.”

Strohmaier also notes in his letter that coal traffic could reach as many as 60 trains a day with ports operating at full capacity due to energy demands in Asia.

Montana Rail Link officials, though, have said geographic features such as two steep mountain tunnels are a barrier to moving that many train cars. Last year, the company ran 15 trains a day on average, with an estimated five being coal trains; even doubling that haul is more than MRL projects will happen in a decade.

The Conservation Committee is scheduled to meet 2:35 p.m. Wednesday, May 16, in Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.


It isn’t the only recent public forum where the issue has been raised. During last week’s council meeting, Bryan Nickerson, an organizer with the Blue Skies Campaign, shared a series of photos of a machine operating in the railyard and kicking up a cloud of black dust on a clear day.

The coalition aims to prevent pollution and stop more coal trains from running through Missoula.

“Some of the pictures portray the fact that the wind currents are bringing that particulate matter directly into homes on the Northside,” said Nickerson, who used to live in the neighborhood and sometimes found “literally black dust” on the railing outside his home.

A friend of his still lives in the area and called him on April 13 after seeing “a big plume that was completely black.” His friend feared a spill had taken place, so Nickerson grabbed his camera and shot pictures for a couple hours.

“It’s just kind of an injustice,” he said. “The railyard just sits right there, and it’s low-income housing on the Northside, so all the people have to breathe in all that nasty coal dust. I guess I can’t say it definitely is coal dust because we aren’t 100 percent positive, but it looks like coal dust.”

MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost, though, said it isn’t, and the last spill in the Missoula yard was six years ago; it was ethanol and in a different area than the one in the photos.

“We do not believe coal dust is being swept,” Frost said in an email to the Missoulian. “As discussed, we are unaware of any coal dusting off of rail cars on our system.”

In fact, she said the machine running in the railyard is a “ballast regulator” being used to contour the surface and shoulders of the railroad track structure.

“The one shown in the photographs is equipped with a rotating broom sweeping the dirt and rocks from the surface of railroad ties,” Frost said. “In the case of this regulator photographed in the Missoula yard, it is sweeping material which hasn’t been regulated and swept in many years.

“The content of the dust is likely a combination of dirt, rocks, sand and other miscellaneous material, accumulated over numerous years, and akin to what might be found along roadways and other sites within our community.”

The material isn’t being swept up, but it’s being swept off the rail ties and adjacent right-of-way, she said. The lighter ballast seen in the photos is “fresh from the crushing operation and had been recently washed,” and MRL adds fresh ballast as needed under the purview of Federal Railway Association track safety standards.

Regulating the track, replacing ties and adding new ballast are part of normal maintenance for the company; they are done as needed on the system of more than 1,000 miles, but a likely cycle is every 10 to 20 years, Frost said.


After requests from City Council members, the Missoula City-County Health Department hired the McCrone Research Institute to sample dust near the railyard and determine its makeup. Environmental health director Jim Carlson said Tuesday he’s hoping to receive results “within the next week.”

The debate may continue even after the Health Department receives lab results, though. Nick Engelfried, co-founder of the Blue Skies Campaign, said he’s glad the sampling is taking place, but he would like to see “a systematic, long-term study” take place as well.

“It’s very disturbing that MRL representatives claim there’s no issue with coal or coal dust, when we have photos of what looks like a large amount of coal spilled in their rail yard,” he wrote in an email. “Even more alarming is the cloud of dust which the pictures show drifting toward a residential area. Coal dust contains toxic mercury and uranium, and if it’s getting into neighborhoods that’s a big problem. Of course, if proposals to bring many more coal trains into town go through, the chances of something like this happening again will skyrocket.”


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