A string of derailments of trains carrying coal has galvanized opponents of new coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, who are concerned that more traffic in their communities would compromise health, the environment and public safety.
Early Tuesday, a CSX coal train turned over on its side in Ellicott City, Md., near Baltimore. Two college students were killed, and the accident closed roads and businesses.
Last month, a Union Pacific coal train derailed on a highway overpass near Chicago, killing two people in a car on the road below. Recent derailments of coal trains in Washington state and Texas resulted in no fatalities, but they added to the debate over transporting coal.
Coal isn’t classified as a hazardous material, and railroads have been shipping it from mines to ports and power plants for decades, mostly without incident. But some communities have decided they don’t want mile-and-a-half long coal trains lumbering through their backyards and they have vocal allies in environmental groups.
CSX referred questions about Tuesday’s derailment to the National Transportation Safety Board. NTSB spokesman Jim Southworth said investigators had interviewed the three crew members of the train, who said they “saw nothing and felt nothing” before the accident.
The NTSB team inspected the locomotives and cars, and the condition of the track, Southworth said. They downloaded information from the locomotive event recorder, he said, and will review footage from a front-facing camera in the locomotive.
“This investigation will be very wide-range,” Southworth said.
Coal opponents in Bellingham, Wash., are worried about an increase in coal traffic that could accompany a proposed export terminal near the city. Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal producer, could ship as much as 50 million tons of coal a year through the Gateway Pacific terminal, mostly to power plants in China, South Korea and Japan.
Anti-coal activists in Bellingham want to put a measure on the November ballot that would ban coal shipments through the city of 82,000. A local judge issued an injunction against the measure earlier this month, and the state Court of Appeals in Seattle will hear an anti-coal group’s request to overturn the injunction. Because of interstate commerce law, communities have little power to regulate what’s transported through them.
Coal is a profitable business for railroads, which excel at carrying large quantities of freight over long distances. It accounts for nearly a quarter of their revenue, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.
Tighter emissions standards and an abundance of cheap natural gas have made coal less attractive to domestic utilities. That’s why coal, rail and shipping companies are looking to overseas markets. To reach them, they need to build export terminals along the West Coast.
Those who oppose the Gateway Pacific project say the coal trains will bring additional noise and pollution to Bellingham, and will block road crossings.
“Mining, transporting and burning coal fouls our air, pollutes our water, sickens our children and destroys the environment,” the Sierra Club says on its “Beyond Coal” website.
Those who support the project say the region needs the jobs.
“Our union knows more about these issues than the Sierra Club,” said Mike Elliott, the chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Washington state, in a statement.
The debate has made for some strange alliances. Labor unions and industry leaders support coal exports. Lawmakers who might otherwise agree find themselves in opposite corners.
"I’m opposed to these coal trains traveling through the heart of Seattle and the Northwest altogether," Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat who represents Seattle in the House of Representatives, said in a statement last month.
But Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat who represents Bellingham, supports the export terminal project. In response to an election questionnaire from The Bellingham Herald, he said, “This project creates hundreds of good-paying jobs in Whatcom County at a time when thousands are out of work and the average county wage is less than the statewide average.”
The coal terminal dispute contributed to the defeat of Bellingham’s incumbent mayor last year and is certain to be an issue in this year’s election.
“Residents in suburban communities figuratively have their congressman’s phone number on the refrigerator magnet, and they won’t hesitate to call him,” said Larry Kaufman, a railroad industry public-relations veteran. “They vote; railroads do not.”
Kaufman, who worked for BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern, a major coal hauler in the Western U.S., said that as railroad traffic had rebounded in recent years, conflicts arose. Railroads generally have a good safety record, he said, but it’s up to them to explain to the public why trains sometimes come off the tracks.
“The railroads have transitioned from a shrinking mode to an expanding mode,” he said. “That puts them into contact and in a context with people that are not used to having high-volume rail operations in their neighborhoods.”