By: Shannon Williamson
The story of the coal train derailment near Heron, Montana has evolved quite a bit since August 13th when the incident first occurred. At 11 PM, a Montana Rail Link (MRL) coal train derailed and dumped 30 car loads of coal along the banks and into the Clark Fork River.
I flew over the site of the derailment on September 12th thanks to LightHawk, a non-profit that connects volunteer pilots with NGOs to document environmental and conservation issues. While the tracks were clear and open to train traffic, the rest of the mess remained virtually untouched. A few days later, the coal covering the banks of the river began to smolder – all by itself – twice.
We are very fortunate that Sandy Compton and Marjolein Groot Nibbelink witnessed the smoldering coal first hand and alerted authorities. Thankfully, MRL personnel were able to extinguish the hot spots before the situation got out of control.
Finally, on September 18th, 5 weeks after the initial incident, a real effort was made by MRL to clean up the mess. Was it because of the fire hazard? Maybe – that would make sense. Was it because MRL was “waiting on the appropriate permits to initiate cleanup” as suggested by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)? I doubt it. I’ve never heard of such a thing. So you don’t need a permit to spill, but you DO need one to clean it up? *eye roll*
The bottom line is really quite simple – if you make a mess, clean it up. In a timely manner. My kids are (vaguely) familiar with this concept. They’ve recently learned that if they don’t clean up their belongings in a timely manner, they end up in a garbage bag. This is not a popular consequence, but it’s amazingly effective. It’s unfortunate that private citizens, or even regulatory agencies in some instances, don’t have a say in the matter when it comes to a train derailment, even if the derailed cargo presents a real fire danger.
That brings me to the current status of the cleanup. I’ve had eyes on the scene and it does appear that coal is being removed from the banks, which is fantastic! MRL has communicated that *all* coal will be removed from the banks and the river. However, their “scope of work” document provided to FWS simply says that the coal in the river *may* be removed. So which one is it? We’ll see…
Is unburned coal hazardous to water quality? I’ve heard passionate arguments on both sides. There are numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles documenting the negative impacts to water quality from unburned coal. FWS seems concerned with unburned coal in the water since they started monitoring for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) with passive samplers on September 12th. The samplers will remain in place until October 10th. PAHs are organic compounds found in coal that can be harmful to bull trout and other aquatic species. So there’s that.
While we’ve watched the cleanup response to this unfortunate incident unfold, news about the fate of the largest proposed coal export terminal in North America recently broke. The Washington State Department of Ecology denied a key water quality permit for Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview due to the project’s inescapable negative impact on clean water. Absent a successful legal challenge to the decision, the proposal is dead.
This means that Sandpoint won’t have another 16 coal trains rolling through town each day, lessening the threat of a coal train derailment closer to home. When I started working on the coal train issue in 2011, there were 6 coal export terminal proposals in Washington and Oregon. Today, there are zero. So if anyone ever tells you that your voice doesn’t make a difference, they’re wrong. Your voice joined with a hundred thousand others is pretty darn powerful.