Will More Coal, Oil Trains Rumble Through Northwest?

By Chris Thomas, Public News Service
PHOTO: Eleven oil-by-rail projects have been proposed for the Northwest since 2012. This car, known as a DOT-111, is the type that carries Bakken crude oil. Photo courtesy U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

PHOTO: Eleven oil-by-rail projects have been proposed for the Northwest since 2012. This car, known as a DOT-111, is the type that carries Bakken crude oil. Photo courtesy U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

SEATTLE – About two dozen projects have been proposed in the past two years to move the Northwest toward becoming a transportation hub for coal, oil and gas to Asia.

A new Sightline Institute report examines the combination of rail, pipeline and fuel terminal proposals across Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Report author Eric de Place, Sightline’s policy director, said public input is critical as local land-use agencies determine the fate of each project. Regionally, he said, he thinks Native American voices also will be important.
“It’s almost impossible to overstate the potential for the Tribes to derail these plans,” he said. “They have treaty rights with the U.S. government that allow them to, in many cases, put a stop to these plans almost immediately.”
Last week’s meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians included a three-hour workshop on climate change. Last year, the coalition of 72 tribes passed a resolution opposing the transport and export of fossil fuels in the Northwest.
Deborah Parker, a council member of the Tulalip Tribes, said they are prepared to do more.
“Co-Salish Tribes, we’re in 110 percent agreement,” she said. “We do not want to see these oil trains here. Turning our region into a fossil-fuel depository and port of departure? It will not be economically beneficial – not anywhere near the degree that it’ll be economically disastrous.”
For the most part, she said, the tribes haven’t been convinced that the job potential of the coal, oil and gas projects is significant enough to offset the damage to land, fish and wildlife.
Estimates in the Sightline Institute report indicate that Washington’s ambitious plan for reducing carbon pollution can be tossed if all the fuel-transport proposals are approved. De Place said the changes would increase the Northwest’s carbon footprint by three to five times.
“I think it’s fair to say that most people are astonished at the scale of the transformation that this region is about to embark on if fossil-fuel companies get their way, and that decision is all happening within the next couple of years,” he said. “The scale is much, much bigger than most people realize.”
The Sightline Institute report is online at sightline.org.

M’ville mayor wants to bridge gap if coal trains come through town

By: Steve Powell, Arlington Times

MARYSVILLE — Mayor Jon Nehring has a love-hate relationship with the proposal for a new coal terminal in Cherry Point.

What he wouldn’t like would be increased train traffic in town. What he would like is federal and state money to build more bridges over the railroad to improve traffic flow with fewer delays waiting for trains.
Nehring said he’s been fighting the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham for 3 1/2 years.
“They were trying to slide that through with no comments,” Nehring said.
But he and others met with then-governor Chris Gregoire, who slowed down the process.
“There’s so much opposition now” to it going to Ferndale. “It’s hard to predict” where it might end up, although he said Longview might be a good choice.
The City Council passed a resolution against the terminal in May of 2012.
A survey published July 24 by the Puget Sound Regional Council showed that a new coal terminal north of Marysville would bring up to 18 new trains per day through town. That would slow down commercial and commuter traffic, emergency response times, and ultimately have an economic impact of $1.65 million per year in Marysville alone, the report says.
“The beauty of this is it brings attention to our railroad problems outside of Snohomish County,” Nehring said of the publicity surrounding the survey.
Currently the only routes that bypass the train tracks to get in and out of the city are north and south of town. But if you live, work and/or need business services from 4th to 116th streets, “You have to wait the trains out,” the mayor said.
The mayor and council favor on- and off-ramps at Interstate 5 and 4th Street in a $50 million project.
Nehring said increased coal train traffic wouldn’t bring much help to Marysville. He said Ferndale would see all of the job growth.
The mayor also said the city will see an increase in train traffic no matter what. The report, prepared by a team of consulting firms, points out that freight rail traffic in Washington by 2035 is expected to grow 130 percent to 238 million tons of cargo, even without the new coal terminal. Rail freight already has increased 81 percent from 1991 to 2012, from 64 to 116 millions tons.
Marysville has 16 at-grade crossings on public streets along the north-south rail line. Long trains frequently create backups in town, often clogging the off-ramps from I-5. Wait times at crossings, which range from a total of 22 minutes to an hour and a half per day, could increase by as much as 147 percent per day within Marysville.
The trains are expected to be about 1.6 miles long. One report Marysville commissioned in 2011 noted that a single long train could simultaneously block all the railroad crossings between First Street and NE 88th Street.
Train noise and vibration, vehicle circulation and access impacts, and safety concerns, along with lower property values, are key concerns about increased railroad usage.
The mayor also said he’d like to city BNSF pay more for mitigation of increased train traffic. Federal law limits its cost to 5 percent, about what Wal Mart paid for traffic mitigation for its new store at Highway 529, the mayor noted.
Seattle-based SSA Marine’s Gateway Pacific Terminal project is in the planning stages and isn’t expected to be operating at full capacity until 2019.
City leaders in Marysville have studied their rail problems for years and recently hired a consultant to research alternatives to the city’s multiple at-grade crossings. The new PSRC report estimates that mitigation projects would cost $50 million to $200 million each. Two environmental impact statements are expected in mid-2015, at which time a public comment period will begin.
If the terminal does end up at Cherry Point, Nehring just wants government to mitigate the impacts.
“Just don’t clog our city down,” Nehring said.

Crowdfunded science suggests that coal-hauling trains cause air pollution

By John Upton, Grist

Coal dust is blowing off rail cars and over neighborhoods located near train tracks that are used to haul coal in the Pacific Northwest.

Air monitors placed near the tracks in a Seattle residential area detected spikes in large particles of pollution when coal-hauling cars chugged by. They also picked up an increase in diesel particulate matter. These preliminary research findings suggest that plans to increase the amount of coal hauled from mines in Montana and Wyoming to proposed new shipping terminals in Washington and Oregon will worsen air pollution.

How do we know this? Because 271 people donated $20,529 through the research-focused crowdfunding site Microryza to help buy air monitors and pay for the labor of researchers and a technician.

The work was led by University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Dan Jaffe. He released the preliminary findings on Monday. A paper with the research results is still under peer review, but Jaffe said he felt he owed it to his donors to release his findings as soon as they were available.

From KUOW:

“We did find an increase in large particles in the air when coal trains pass by and it does suggest that it’s coal dust and it’s consistent with coal dust from those trains,” said the UW scientist, Dan Jaffe. …

Jaffe gathered air quality samples at two sites next to train tracks in the Northwest. He tested 450 trains as they passed — roughly 10 percent of which were carrying coal.

A spokesperson for BNSF Railway raised questions about the crowdfunded research: “How is it being done? How is it being funded? What standards are in place? Who is involved in that? So [crowdfunding] is a really new concept when it comes to scientific research.”

This highlights a challenge that scientists will face when they pursue crowdsourced funding: Donors will desire quick results, but the peer-review system takes time.

Jaffe, though, isn’t worried about it. “I’ve published over 120 papers in the scientific peer reviewed literature,” he said. “I know the drill. If I didn’t feel our results would hold up to peer review scrutiny there’s no way I’d be releasing them now.”

Mayor McGinn testifies in Congress to stop coal trains in Pacific Northwest


WASHINGTON — Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is calling on Congress to stop coal trains from rolling through the state.

McGinn doesn’t want the coal trains rolling through any cities in the Northwest, especially not in Seattle along the waterfront.

McGinn made his case testifying before members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee Tuesday.

He updated them on the plan by coal companies, railroads and international shipping companies to build two new export facilities in Washington state.

The arguments against the coal trains are familiar. People are worried about pollution from coal dust in the air and extra traffic from the mile-long trains.

Those who support the coal export expansion plans argue shipping more than 100 million tons of coal to Asia each year helps the state and federal economy and the new export facilities would create jobs.

McGinn called on lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to do an environmental impact study.

Sierra Club sues over coal dust from uncovered trains in Columbia River gorge

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued BNSF railway and coal companies in federal court today, charging that they pollute the Columbia River and other water bodies with coal dust from uncovered coal trains. This water sample from the Columbia is an example of it, they say.Motoya Nakamura/The Oreognian
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued BNSF railway and coal companies in federal court today, charging that they pollute the Columbia River and other water bodies with coal dust from uncovered coal trains. This water sample from the Columbia is an example of it, they say.Motoya Nakamura/The Oreognian

Scott Learn, The Oregonian, June 5, 2013

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued BNSF railway and coal companies in federal court Wednesday, charging that they pollute the Columbia River and other water bodies with coal dust from uncovered coal trains.

It’s the first lawsuit filed in the Northwest’s coal export controversy. Developers are pursuing three train-fed export terminals to ship Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia, two in Washington and one in Boardman at the Port of Morrow.

The lawsuit focuses on pollution from roughly four uncovered coal train trips a day through Washington’s side of the gorge to a coal-fired power plant in Centralia and export terminals in British Columbia.

Approval of the Northwest export terminals could add about 20 train trips a day and increase water pollution, the environmental groups charge. They want a federal judge to require Clean Water Act permits for the uncovered, mile-plus trains.

In statements, BNSF, union backers and the trade group representing coal companies and others pursuing Northwest coal export called the lawsuit frivolous and said it threatened to delay the export projects and jeopardize the jobs that go with them.

The lawsuit is “nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to stop the permitting of multi-commodity export terminals,” the company said.

The Sierra Club had a laboratory test debris in several places including alongside the tracks and the Columbia River, and the lab found it was coal, the suit says.

BNSF has estimated about 500 pounds of coal blowing off a single open car, the environmental groups note. But terminal and rail officials say most of the dust is lost near the mines, and the railroads are taking steps to limit dust, which can undermine track ballast and derail trains.

BNSF officials say the company has clamped down on coal dust from the trains in recent years, spraying sticky surfactants to keep dust down and having mines load coal in a “bread loaf” shape that reduces coal dust losses.

With U.S. demand flagging, coal terminal developers want to ramp up exports, carting in Montana and Wyoming coal on mile-plus, uncovered coal trains. The terminals could bring hundreds of millions in investment and hundreds of jobs, they say.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle.


Stop the Coal Trains

COAL CARS SPEW DUST AS THEY RUMBLE DOWN THE TRACKS 500 pounds to a ton of coal can escape from a single car.
COAL CARS SPEW DUST AS THEY RUMBLE DOWN THE TRACKS 500 pounds to a ton of coal can escape from a single car.

Everybody knows that coal trains are bad for our health, our economy, and our planet. So how do we stop them?

Cienna Madrid, Seattle Stranger

You might have heard the talk: Coal interests are pushing to make the Pacific Northwest a 24-hour conveyor belt linking coal mines in Montana and Wyoming with Asian markets clamoring for cheap, dirty power. The most urgent fight is currently taking place just north of Bellingham at Cherry Point, the site of a proposed coal-export terminal that would be the largest in North America.

Why should someone in Seattle care about a coal terminal 100 miles north of the city? Because coal combustion is the leading human-caused increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is largely responsible for global warming. Because shipping dirty coal to China while piously shutting down the last coal-fired power plant in Washington State (as the state is doing) would simultaneously mock and cheapen our forward-thinking, tree-humping pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2050. And because there is not just one but five coal terminals—five!—currently proposed in the Northwest, each of which could bring 1.5-mile-long coal trains rumbling through our region daily, blocking traffic, interfering with other business at Seattle’s port, and leaving clouds of coal dust in their wake.

State and federal agencies are currently wrapping up a three-month public comment period to determine which environmental, economic, and health impacts should be studied before issuing or denying the Cherry Point terminal’s permits. Thousands of Washington residents have flocked to seven scheduled public meetings held around the state to oppose the proposal, 10,000 have submitted comments to the state Department of Ecology, 25,000 have submitted comments to the Army Corps of Engineers, and more than 40,000 people have signed a petition that’s been sent to the state’s land commissioner.

And yet, a lot of people still don’t know about the issue, don’t understand it, or don’t have an opinion. Not having an opinion on coal is like not having an opinion on climate change. And this isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a health issue. It’s an issue of priorities. Here’s all you need to know before the public comment period ends on January 21.

The Largest Coal-Export Terminal on the Continent

In February 2011, international shipping- terminal firm SSA Marine applied for permits to build a $500 million coal-export terminal outside Bellingham at Cherry Point, right next to a state-protected aquatic reserve and smack on top of a Native American burial ground (more on that later). The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would occupy nearly 1,500 acres of land, about 100 acres of which would be converted into a large open-air coal stockyard with stunning panoramic views of the Strait of Georgia and its closest neighbor, the state aquatic reserve, home to more than 300 blue heron nests and a metric fuckton of fish.

Roughly five million tons of coal is currently transported through Washington State each year to Canadian ports. This translates to about six coal trains per day (three full, three empty). The Gateway Pacific Terminal would dwarf that, shipping out 48 million tons of coal annually, circuitously hauled from sprawling strip mines in the Powder River Basin (PRB) of Montana and Wyoming. Calls to the company behind the Gateway Pacific Terminal were not returned, but the facts of its proposal are well known. Each day, 18 trains (nine full, nine empty), stretching 1.5 miles long each, would complete the journey to the Washington Coast, trundling at average speeds of 35 miles per hour through Spokane and the Columbia River Gorge, and up the coast through Longview, Tacoma, Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Mount Vernon, and Bellingham, and back. Each train would delay traffic at railway crossings five minutes on average. (Gateway Pacific Terminal estimates delays at four minutes, while other groups have estimated seven minutes.) According to a city-commissioned traffic impact study, traffic along Seattle’s waterfront could be cumulatively delayed between one and three hours each day, significantly impacting commuter traffic, emergency vehicle response times, and freight operations at the Port of Seattle.

“It would create a wall along our waterfront,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “The data suggests there will be more frustrations, with more bikers, drivers, and pedestrians ‘shooting the gap’ to get across—which means the potential for more accidents.”

Toxic Dust, Derailments, and Spontaneous Combustion

Coal cars are typically uncovered, constantly spewing dust as they rumble down the tracks. As BNSF Railway acknowledged in a startlingly frank 2011 coal dust fact sheet, “The amount of coal dust that escapes from PRB coal trains is surprisingly large… from 500 lbs to a ton of coal can escape from a single loaded coal car.” According to BNSF, as much as 3 percent of the coal loaded into a coal car can be lost in transit: “In many areas, a thick layer of black coal dust can be observed along the railroad right of way and in between the tracks.” Aside from the health risks of inhaling coal dust, the railway explains that accumulated coal dust on tracks may cause derailments. At least 22 coal trains jumped the tracks in the United States in 2012.

Coal proponents argue that the dust can be mitigated by installing new, better coal chutes and applying “topper agents” to the coal cars. But there’s another risk when shipping PRB coal: It’s notoriously spontaneously combustible.

“Operators familiar with the unique requirements of burning PRB coal will tell you that it’s not a case of ‘if’ you will have a PRB coal fire, it’s ‘when,'” notes a 2003 article published by the coal industry group Utility FPE Group Inc. The article continues, “Although prevention is cheaper than repairing fire and explosion damage, its costs always seem difficult to justify.”

“Spontaneous combustion of coal is a well-known phenomenon, especially with PRB coal,” states an industry research paper called “PRB Coal Degradation—Causes and Cures.” “This high-moisture, highly volatile sub-bituminous coal will not only smolder and catch fire while in storage piles at power plants and coal terminals, but has been known to be delivered to a power plant with the rail car or barge partially on fire.”

It’s probably inaccurate to picture mile-long flaming coal train cars inching across the state, says the Northwest environmental research organization Sightline Institute: “The threat is likely to be more insidious—slowly smoldering coal that is perhaps emitting noxious gases into neighboring communities. Yet the severity and toxicity of these gases are largely unknown.”

Some of the worst health effects would be felt in the communities surrounding Cherry Point. The terminal’s port would be large enough to berth three cargo ships at once. Coal would be conveyed from the 100-acre coal stockyard along a 1,250-foot trestle linking ships to shore. Heavy machinery would troll the coal piles, continuously rotating them to discourage combustion, kicking up even more coal dust with each turn.

Pneumoconiosis, Bronchitis, Emphysema, and Lymphoma

Common sense and science tell us that working with coal will shorten your life span. The US Department of Labor links coal dust to pneumoconiosis, regular bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, “rapidly developing lung damage,” and premature death in exposed workers. It’s also been known to cause lymphoma and adrenal tumors in test animals.

But alarmingly, very little research has been done on the nonoccupational environmental health effects of coal dust on people. Here’s what we do know: Coal dust contains concentrations of heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. Furthermore, rainwater runoff from coal stockpiles can leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater that people and animals drink.

“We’re concerned about increased air pollution and the effects it can have on patients,” testified Dr. Melissa Weakland at a public hearing on the Gateway Pacific Terminal held in Seattle’s convention center on December 13. Speaking on behalf of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, Dr. Weakland also echoed concerns about delays in emergency response time, heavy metal poisoning, pulmonary problems, and cancer. “Many health specifics in this proposal are left unanswered,” Dr. Weakland said.

Growing Public Opposition

The Seattle public hearing was the last of seven held around the state. The meetings were crowded, tense, and predominantly packed with protesters—including heavy hitters like Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, a handful of Tacoma and Seattle city council members, King County executive Dow Constantine, and state representatives Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) and Reuven Carlyle (D-36). But the most moving testimony came from a 12-year-old.

“I appreciate the natural wonders of this state,” testified Rachel Howell of Queen Anne to a packed convention center ballroom. “I like salmon. I like oysters. Global warming is threatening salmon and oysters. I like to ski at Snoqualmie Pass. In my lifetime, I will not be able to ski at Snoqualmie Pass because of global warming. This is the future you’re creating for us, and this is not the future we want. It’s pretty simple, even I understand: If you make coal more available, more people will use it.”

We can’t fight global warming by exporting our carbon: It’s an issue that’s simple enough for a 12-year-old to understand. The rest of us? That remains to be seen.

Lobbying in support of the coal terminal is the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a pro-coal group formed last July to counter all of the bad press about heron habitat, heart disease, and spontaneous combustion. The Alliance is composed of 54 organizations representing almost 400,000 employees in Washington, Oregon, and “around the country,” according to spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey. The group has downplayed health and statewide environmental concerns.

“It’s impossible to consider the cumulative impact of coal trains; it’s purely speculative,” said labor union representative and Alliance member Herb Krohn at the December 13 public meeting. “Coal is a naturally occurring mineral, the coal dust discharged is minimal, and this argument that it impacts health is specious at best.”

Hennessey would not address specific environmental or health risks raised by citizens directly, saying only: “If people have concerns, they should write those concerns in.” If the government’s environmental impact study sees fit to address those concerns, “we’ll do whatever mitigation is necessary,” she adds.

Meanwhile, the group is purported to have spent $1 million in television ads in the Northwest to transform coal trains into huggable, huffing economic engines (Hennessey would neither confirm nor deny the amount spent, only calling it “sizable”). They claim the terminal will bring in $25 million in new tax revenue once built, as well as 4,400 new jobs, most of which would be two-year construction jobs. Gateway Pacific Terminal has promised the project would create 294 to 430 permanent local jobs.

But critics say that the job numbers don’t take into account the many careers the Cherry Point coal terminal would destroy.

“Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract,” testified Pete Knutson, a 40-year career fisherman, owner of the Loki Fish Company based out of Ballard, and a commissioner on the Puget Sound Salmon Commission (WSDA). “We have 15,000 fishery jobs in Puget Sound; now our marine livelihoods are at stake. A job is not necessarily a livelihood. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource. We have a moral obligation to reject this proposal.”

Cargo operations at the Port of Seattle would also be threatened, both from the increased traffic through Sodo and from competition for scarce rail capacity. Washington’s freight rail system is already pushing its limits—18 additional coal trains a day would drive up prices for other shippers.

Opposition to the terminals is mounting: More than three dozen cities, counties, and ports, close to 600 health professionals, 220 faith leaders, and more than 450 local businesses have either voiced concern or come out against coal export off the West Coast. Many tribal governments, including the Lummi Nation, have also organized to oppose coal export after terminal contractors were issued a cease-and-desist order in June 2011 for bulldozing sacred Lummi burial grounds without permits.

“Cherry Point is flagged as a cemetery. That’s not oral history, that’s fact,” Lummi Nation spokesman Jay Julius says. “That is our Jerusalem. That is our holy ground.”

Three dozen municipalities, including the Seattle City Council, have passed symbolic resolutions in outright opposition to the proposals or at the very least demanding that state and federal agencies execute a full, comprehensive environmental impact study (EIS) on the cumulative impacts of coal trains and exports.

“I’m here speaking on behalf of dozens and dozens of state officials who’ve all called for a comprehensive, cumulative impact analysis to this proposal,” testified Representative Carlyle at the December 13 Seattle hearing. “That means a thorough, data driven analysis of the economic externalities of this proposal—the transportation, the health, the safety impacts that our communities will face. We’re asking you to acknowledge that most communities don’t have the resources to do their own economic analysis. It’s critical that this EIS be thorough, be data driven, and recognize the profound implications on our quality of life.”

What You Can Do to Stop the Coal Trains

Interstate commerce laws prevent local authorities from outright blocking coal trains from passing through their jurisdictions, so the only way to stop the trains is to stop the terminals. But the path to blocking the Gateway Pacific Terminal and other terminal proposals in Longview, Washington, and Boardman, St. Helens, and Coos Bay, Oregon, is murky. Each terminal is being pushed by separate coal interests and each faces its own timeline and permitting process for approval. Opponents fear that if one proposal goes through, the amount of coal they plan on shipping will increase exponentially to meet market demands.

“The coal industry has already lied about the amount of coal they were planning on shipping out of Longview,” says Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “When that was discovered, they had to pull permit applications and refile.” A spokesperson for Millennium Bulk Terminals, the organization behind the Longview proposal, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In order to proceed with the coal terminals, companies must first secure development permits from local county councils, aquatic lease permits from public lands commissioner Peter Goldmark, and approval for the projects from the state Department of Ecology and federal Army Corps of Engineers. The biggest challenge, opponents say, is to orchestrate killing all five of the proposals at once—not just the terminal at Cherry Point.

“It’s not about one entity, it’s about the big picture,” explains Kimberly Larson, a spokeswoman for Climate Solutions, which is working with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to organize Northwest opposition efforts in both Oregon and Washington. “They’re all in play at the same time, and that’s why it’s important to show the collective resistance across the region. If one goes through, it will affect all of us.” For instance, coal trains headed to Oregon would still trundle through Spokane and the Columbia River Gorge, impacting communities along the way and clogging Washington’s freight rail system. You can help Climate Solutions and the Sierra Club by writing letters opposing the terminals to Commissioner Goldmark (cpl@dnr.wa.gov), the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington State Department of Ecology (eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/get-involved/comment), as well as to your state, county, and city representatives.

Protesters already helped kill one coal terminal last summer, slated for Grays Harbor. “After hearing from the community, the terminal said that they wanted to ship friendlier, healthier items than coal out there,” Collard explains.

That’s the sort of victory coal train opponents hope to achieve throughout the Northwest. “We share a vision for a better future,” testified King County executive Dow Constantine at Seattle’s public hearing on the Cherry Point terminal. “Our vision doesn’t include 18 trains a day pulling those coal cars through the heart of Washington. This isn’t just a regional issue; it’s a global issue and a generational issue. In Washington, we have done away with coal-fired plants, but shipping overseas will overwhelm the gains we’ve made here at home.”

A 12-year-old couldn’t have said it any better.

Coal trains would worsen Marysville’s traffic problem

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

Dan Bates / The HeraldEastbound Marysville traffic, coming off I-5 from both northbound and southbound ramps, jams up at the Fourth Street train crossing April 9.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Eastbound Marysville traffic, coming off I-5 from both northbound and southbound ramps, jams up at the Fourth Street train crossing April 9.

MARYSVILLE — When it comes to traffic backups from more coal trains, Marysville is Snohomish County’s ground zero.

Of 33 street crossings on BNSF Railway’s north-south line in the county, 16 — nearly half — are in Marysville.

Many of them already are congested.

Even now, at Fourth Street downtown, trains cause drivers to wait through the equivalent of three or four red lights, according to one traffic study.

Adding trains would make it that much harder for people who live in the city to get in and out, would delay access to businesses and cause serious problems for fire, ambulance and police service, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.

“The addition of just 16 train trips will block the Marysville main lifeline to I-5 for an additional 2-3 hours a day,” according to a 2011 study by Gibson Traffic Consultants of Everett.

The proposed $650 million Gateway Pacific terminal would serve as a place to send coal, grain, potash and scrap wood for biofuels to Asia. Trains would bring coal from Montana and Wyoming across Washington state to Seattle and north to Bellingham. Supporters point to the jobs that would be generated by the new business.

The terminal also is expected to generate up to 18 more train trips through Snohomish County per day, nine full and nine empty.

This would roughly double the number of trains that currently travel between Everett and Bellingham each day.

Other cities that could be affected by delays from more trains are Edmonds and Stanwood. In Mukilteo and in Everett, the tracks run through underpasses or tunnels at major arterials.

Marysville is in a unique position because the city is long and skinny north and south. The tracks run its entire length, right between Marysville’s two busiest north-south routes, I-5 and State Avenue.

In the case of State, at some crossings, the tracks are right next to the arterial. And State Avenue and I-5 are only about a half-mile apart through much of the city.

How much money will be needed for bridges, underpasses and rail improvements — and who would pay — is a long way from being determined.

Railroads are obligated by federal law to pay only a maximum of 5 percent of the cost of new bridges or tunnels deemed necessary to offset delays from added train traffic, according to Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway in Seattle. The railroad owns the tracks from Seattle to the Canadian border.

“We would work with city officials to identify funding and work with them to see where the funding could come from, whether it’s federal dollars, state dollars or local dollars,” she said.

Wallace said she didn’t know if the company proposing the plan, SSA Marine of Seattle, would pitch in to cover any of the costs. Craig Cole, a spokesman for SSA Marine, declined to comment on the topic.

Even if money is available for road fixes, Marysville’s choices are limited.

Because of the closeness of the tracks to State Avenue and I-5, building overpasses is not even an option, city public works director Kevin Nielsen said.

Officials with Marysville and the state Department of Transportation — to name just a couple of agencies that submitted letters during last fall’s comment period on the plan — asked that potential improvements and costs be addressed in upcoming environmental studies.

From September through January, about 14,000 people registered comments in hearings and in writing with the three agencies reviewing the plan — the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County.

It’s too early to tell exactly what subjects the studies will include, said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the ecology department. It will likely be at least a few months before the topics for study are determined and a year before the first draft of the study is done, Altose said.

This would be followed by another comment period and the final study, which would likely take at least another year.

Many environmental groups, local governments and individuals have come out against the plan. Their concerns, in addition to traffic at crossings, include pollution from coal dust and climate change.

One of the rail crossings is at 271st Street NW in the heart of Stanwood. Mayor Dianne White, however, doesn’t believe the extra trains would cause major problems.

“I don’t see it messing it up that much. They don’t stop, they keep going,” she said.

She added, however, that “I really feel for Marysville. It could completely block the whole city.”

Other crossings in the Silvana area and north of Stanwood could face some rush-hour delays but traffic is lighter there than in Marysville.

On the positive side, the plan is projected to create 4,400 temporary, construction related jobs and 1,200 long-term positions, according to SSA Marine.

“If they don’t build that Cherry Point terminal, (the trains) are going to keep going into Canada like they are now and we don’t get 2,000 jobs,” White said.

Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district includes Marysville as well as Bellingham where the project is planned, came under fire in his re-election campaign last year for backing the coal terminal. At the time, he called it a difficult decision, but said he supported the terminal because of the thousands of unemployed people who live in Whatcom County.

He said in a statement on Friday that “potentially negative outcomes” should be determined in the environmental review.

“If the (study) identifies traffic impacts, the project sponsor would and should be responsible for paying for improvements to mitigate those problems,” he said.

In Edmonds, the city has only two crossings, but one of them sits at the entrance to the ferry dock at the foot of Main Street. The other, at Dayton Street, controls access to much of the waterfront, including the Port of Edmonds marina.

State transportation officials, in written comments on the Gateway Pacific plan last fall, said two of 25 sailings per day were recently eliminated from the Edmonds-Kingston run because waits for trains were causing the boats to run behind schedule.

A plan proposed long ago, but shelved by a lack of funding, called for building a new ferry terminal at the south end of Edmonds where a bridge could be built over the tracks to carry ferry traffic.

The transportation department, in its letter, asked that this plan be re-examined in the environmental study, as well as the possibility of a bridge or tunnel at the Main Street crossing, and restricting train traffic during busy travel periods.

More than twice as many trains run per day on weekdays in south county than from Everett north — 49 compared to 19. Very few of the roads north of Everett, however, have bridges or underpasses at the train tracks.

Of the trains running in both directions between Everett and Seattle, about 35 are freight trains, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. Amtrak Cascades and Empire Builder trains add another six every day, while Sounder commuter trains add another eight on weekdays. Mudslides have canceled an increasing number of these trains in recent years.

Adding 18 trains per day would bring the Monday-Friday total to 67.

About 15 freight trains run per day between Everett and Bellingham, Melonas said. Amtrak Cascades trains add four more for a total of 19 each day.

Adding 18 to this total would bring the total to 37.

Currently, up to four trains per day already carry coal on tracks between Seattle and Canada, Melonas said. Several terminals in British Columbia already ship coal, according to the Coal Association of Canada.

Trains are restricted to 30 mph in Marysville for safety reasons, meaning the barriers are down for six to eight minutes — the equivalent of three or four stoplight cycles — for the longer trains, according to the Gibson study.

The study was done for a group of business owners and residents in Whatcom County, said Tom Ehrlichman, an attorney for Salish Law of Bellingham, the group’s law firm at the time.

In downtown Marysville, the crossing at Fourth Street is less than a quarter-mile from I-5 — too close for an overpass, which would take up four blocks, Nielsen said.

Engineers have looked at tunneling under the tracks, but the dip would have to be steep because of the proximity to the freeway. Also, high ground water at that location would make the underpass susceptible to flooding, he said.

At 88th Street NE, the tracks are just a few feet from State Avenue.

“We could go over it, but you would end up way over on the other side of State Avenue in a neighborhood somewhere, and you’d have to have loop-back ramps over people’s houses to get back to State,” Nielsen said.

Because the tracks at 88th and 116th Street NE are so close to I-5, sometimes, when a long train goes through, traffic backs up onto the freeway, according to the Gibson study.

In fact, the extra trains could negate the benefits of the city’s $2 million widening of 116th completed a few years ago, the study says.

The study shows the street having carried 20,000 automobiles per day in 2011. For 88th Street NE and Fourth Street, the numbers are 30,000 each. Of this 80,000 total, about 7,000 of those were in the evening rush hour.

Because of the problems with building overpasses, city officials feel the best solution is to build an off-ramp from northbound I-5 directly to Highway 529 and the new Ebey Slough Bridge. This ramp would carry northbound drivers over the tracks as they exit the freeway, dropping them directly into the city and keeping them from having to sit at crossings at Fourth, 88th or 116th.

This project would cost about $1.8 million, said state Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett.

So far in this year’s session of the Legislature, no money has been included for the ramp. Nehring said the project could potentially be included in a package to be sent to voters.

Either way, “I’m hopeful,” he said.