SANDPOINT — Bonner County has nothing to gain and everything to lose if coal train traffic is allowed to dramatically increase in the Panhandle.
That was the overarching message at the “Coal Hard Truth” forum hosted by Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and the Sierra Club on Thursday.
“There really is no benefit for this community,” said Shannon Williamson, executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper told a capacity crowd at the 90-seat Little Panida Theater.
Waterkeeper estimates there are approximately 50 trains chugging through Bonner County on a daily basis. That traffic could more than double if a plan by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal is allowed to proceed.
“There could be serious implications for water quality in our community,” Williamson said.
Water quality and environmental groups contend the two domestic coal companies seek to export 166 million tons of coal a year to slake the thirst for the resource in China and India. They estimate train frequency would increase to a train every 12 minutes.
Opponents of the plan assert the rise in coal train traffic poses human health and environmental hazards. More trains mean more diesel exhaust, more coal dust blowing out of cars and more chances for derailments. More train traffic would also slow emergency response because at-grade railroad crossings would be tied up by passing locomotives.
“There’s no upside at all,” said Dr. Frank James, a San Juan County, Wash., officer and assistant professor at the University of Washington. “What you will all get is just the downside.”
James, who participated in the forum via Internet videoconferencing, said the carcinogen-laden airborne pollutants from trains already account for $190 million a year in direct and indirect health costs for respiratory ailments, a sum that vastly outstrips any of the tax benefits the proposal could generate.
Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, the only partisan panelist at the forum, told the crowd his department routinely participates in training scenarios for large-scale disasters and has the resources to assess a situation from the air and quickly notify the public of an event.
Wheeler admitted that he was more concerned by the hazardous materials and explosives that are routinely shipped by rail through Bonner County. He said there have been no significant railway incidents from 2002 to 2011.
“There’s been no hazardous leaks involving trains in Bonner County,” Wheeler said.
Gus Melonas, a BNSF Railway spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment on the coal train issue on Friday.
Walter Kloefkorn, a Washington farmer and forum panelist, called the export proposal a classic example of Wall Street economics trumping Main Street economics to line the pockets of ultra-wealthy businessmen such as Warren Buffet.
“The whole project is just more business as usual — Wall Street economics,” said Kloefkorn.
Opponents of the plan are urging Idaho residents to make their voice heard when federal officials consider permits for the export facilities, which could be as early as this spring. Waterkeeper is also distributing a petition and form letters that can be sent to federal regulators, in addition to state and federal lawmakers.