Coal train issues continue to generate local interest

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While some members of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Sierra Club, as well as other local residents, have expressed concerns about the potential effects of having an additional 20 coal trains travel daily through Washougal and Camas, other interests want to be heard.

Robert Hill, of Washougal, is a locomotive engineer for BNSF Railway and the legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen 758, in Vancouver.

“The debate of coal trains and the increased trade with the Asian markets, mainly China, and the building of port facilities and jobs has been a topic that has been circulating through many communities in our state,” he said. “There are measures being taken to mitigate in transit coal dust.

“I applaud our city government for seeking more input with this issue and taking the time to have workshops with discussions seeking input from all parties of interest,” Hill added. “I am confident the fears of coal dust from trains will be eliminated once the facts are presented. A resolution of concern would not be in the interest of the community or the economy for Washington State families.”

Currently, there are two coal trains that travel through the local area per day. Coal export terminals are proposed in Cherry Point, Gray’s Harbor and Longview, to enable companies to transport coal through the Pacific Northwest to Asian markets.

Midwest, a 36-year-old company that has a coal “Car Topping System,” said in a press release its Soil-Sement Engineered Formula has been tested and approved by the BNSF Railroad for its ability to mitigate in-transit coal dust.

“Formulated with million-molecule nanotechnology to penetrate and seal coal to prevent dust from escaping, Soil-Sement has been tested and verified by Simpson Weather Associates Laboratory (for weather ability) and Southern Company (for burn ability),” the release stated. “It was also tested and certified by the California Air Resources Board, the U.S. EPA and the Canada Environmental Technology Verification programs. BNSF’s tests were for corrosion, safety and performance.”

Since coal dust can pose a threat to the stability of the track structure, BNSF works with shippers to minimize the release of dust while the coal cars are in transit — according to a BNSF Railway statement.

The most common coal dust suppression measure involves the application of a topper agent to the shipment at the time of loading.

According to BNSF, studies have confirmed that the proper application of certain topper agents, along with the use of a modified loading chute, can reduce coal dust levels by at least 85 percent.

BNSF’s new rules for coal dust mitigation went into effect Oct. 1, 2011.

During last night’s Washougal City Council meeting, Larry Keister, of Washougal, encouraged the council to continue its discussion about coal trains beyond the Jan. 23 workshop.

He mentioned concerns with potential traffic delays if additional trains travel through the area, negative impacts on local economic development and unknown health issues.

The Friends of the Columbia Gorge organization is hoping the Washougal council will approve a resolution that mentions the potential for traffic congestion of vehicles at railroad crossings, as well as health concerns related to coal dust and other particulates that could be blown from open coal cars. Mayor Sean Guard has said he expects the coal train issue will be discussed again at another workshop.

Additional discussion is expected at a future Camas City Council workshop as well.

During yesterday’s Camas Council workshop, Laura Stevens of the Sierra Club and Camas residents Warren Shoemaker, a clean energy project developer, and Rick Marshall, a local developer, presented information regarding the potential negative impacts of coal trains.

Some examples they listed included a decrease in the health and safety of the people in the community, lower property values, and increased noise, traffic delays and congestion.

“I think we have a right to say we object to these potential impacts,” Shoemaker said.

The trio requested that the Camas City Council pass a resolution expressing its concerns about the project.

Council members agreed that coal trains could be harmful to the community. Camas Mayor Scott Higgins suggested a combined message about the city’s concerns, in conjunction with those of Washougal and Clark County, could end up having more influence with BNSF on the proposal.

Heather Acheson contributed to this article.