Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Coal Terminal Update: Whose Process Is This?

Photograph by Paul Anderson
As you've probably heard by now, there was a spillover crowd at Bellingham High School tonight for the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal "pre-scoping" forum, put on by some very nervous lead agencies. 

The police presence was quite noticeable, and the evening kicked off with stern warnings of expulsion for bad behavior. As it turns out,  I was probably the worst-behaved person there, because I was bored to tears during the first hour and kept texting friends in order to keep awake.  I'm glad that the police didn't cite me for rudeness.

Everybody else listened politely and quietly.  I hope that they learned something.  I use similar slides when I teach Environmental Impact Assessment, and I'm not convinced that they do any good at all.  But more is at stake here, and adult learners predominated, so here's hoping that the information made sense.

The second hour allowed members of the audience to ask questions of a panel of agency personnel, including representatives of the County, the Department of Ecology, the Attorney General's office, and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Randel Perry, representing the Army Corps, might need some training in bureaucratic double-speak, because he actually answered the questions that people asked him.  The crowd didn't always like the answers, but Randel was knowledgeable and straightforward.  Hooah to the Corps.  Whatcom County's Tyler Schroeder got most of the questions and did his best to answer.  When he didn't know something, he didn't pretend.

Some of the others were a little less accustomed to dealing with the public.  That's a symptom, perhaps, of sitting around a table behind closed doors with the MAP team for the past two years.  You come out into the daylight, blinking, and there's a room full of 800 just plain folks.

The questions were excellent.  I wish that I could have answered one of them.  My answer would have been different.

Somebody asked if the public comment period could be longer than 60 days, for both the scoping period and for review of the draft Environmental Impact Statement. The answer, boiled down to its essentials, was "no."  (The actual answer didn't actually include the word "no" and took about 500 more words, but that was the gist of things.)

But guess what?  The real answer is "yes." 

The agencies can (and often do, at least under NEPA) provide more public review time.  For a project of this magnitude, a 60-day scoping period is pretty minimal, and allowing only 60 days to review a draft Environmental Impact Statement that is projected to take two years to prepare would be crazy.

So why are the agencies saying that they won't provide more time?  

Possibly because the applicant has to agree to a scoping period of longer than 30 days under SEPA (see WAC 197-11-410(4)), and perhaps the applicant doesn't want to agree to more than 60 days. 

Applicants always want the shortest possible review periods.  That way, people have less time to review. And maybe to criticize, or find problems, or raise difficult issues, or think of alternatives.

But let's think about this.  
  • The applicant and the agencies have been meeting for two years. Two years to understand and process information relating to the project and its necessary permits.
  • The applicant submitted an incomplete application to Whatcom County and got extensions.  
Isn't it a little bit lopsided for the agencies to meet in private for two years with the applicant, to give the applicant all the extensions that it wants, and then to turn to the public that wants more than 60 days to comment on the scope of this enormous project and say:

"MORE?  You want MORE?"

The lead agencies could, quite reasonably, tell the applicant that more time is needed for public and agency review in order to prepare an adequate environmental impact statement.  The applicant could put its foot down and say "no," of course, but it would do so on the understanding that the lead agencies did not believe that enough time was provided to prepare an adequate document. And the applicant would understand that, if the agencies don't believe that the document is adequate, they are under no obligation to approve the project.

As a result, the wise applicant will usually agree to reasonable extensions of time.  

So why don't the agencies request a little more time for the public to have a say?

Don't forget, the reason that we have a MAP team is to expedite the process.  For the applicant.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Time to Gird Your Hemp-Laced Loins

Enviro-zealots, prepare to start your engines. 

Oh, wait.  Enviro-zealots don’t have engines.  They ride bikes. 

In that case --  prepare to gird your loins!

In a previous blog,   this quote from Coal Age magazine, describing Washington State residents, made quite a stir:

“[Peabody Energy and Arch Coal] will have to win a fierce and potentially defining regulatory battle to build the ports as legions of enraged enviro-zealots gird their hemp-laced loins at the thought of dirty American coal being sent to even dirtier Asian power plants across the blue sea.”
Are we fierce?  Are we legion? And most important of all –

Are we hemp-laced?

Join fellow enviro-zealots, a synonym for “concerned citizens who wonder whether it's a good idea to build North America's largest coal terminal at Cherry Point” tomorrow at 5:00 at Bellingham High School for a “Community Rally” (more information here).   

And it you can’t make it at 5:00, come to the High School at 6:00 for the Department of Ecology and Whatcom County’s  presentation on the Environmental Review Process for the Gateway Pacific coal terminal.

Warning:  Bike rack space may be limited. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Coal Port News: A 2% Solution to Heavy Rail Traffic and At-Grade Railroad Crossings

“Andersen, the BNSF spokesman, said two towns worth studying were Galesburg, Ill., and Olathe, Kan., both of which had heavy rail traffic and many at-grade railroad crossings. Those cities came up with solutions that included underpasses, overpasses, some crossing closures and the establishment of quiet zones.”

“Conference looks at impact of coal trains on downtown Billings,” Ed Kemmick, Billings Gazette, March 10, 2012.
Some of those solutions, from Galesburg, Illinois:

“Not really wanting to be back at work, I decided starting a new hobby would be a good idea while I waited for the second train to pass. It takes a while to master calligraphy, but I had plenty of time to make a good start. . .
I know, from long experience, to have a book with me so I have something to read while I wait. Most trains pass by faster than it seems if you simply sit and stare. I’m lucky if I can read more than five or six pages of a book before it’s time to put it away and resume driving.”

“Like the railroad, dislike delays,”  John R. Pulliam, Galesburg Register-Mail,January 29, 2012.

Billings, Montana is holding a conference this weekend, examining the impact of coal-train traffic on its downtown. This is a topic of more-than-passing interest to Bellingham, of course, because coal train traffic will come right on through our downtown if the Gateway Pacific coal terminal is approved.

With scoping, or at least pre-scoping, for the coal terminal project coming up on March 20, it seems like as good a time as any to think about how the impacts from coal trains can be mitigated.

And so, when I read that BNSF – the same rail company that wants to run coal trains through Bellingham – said to look at Galesburg, Illinois and Olanthe, Kansas for solutions, I did as I was told.   

Not knowing a thing about either place, I picked Galesburg, Illinois and spent a few minutes on Google to find out about the solutions that it offered.

I learned a lot.   What a fascinating place. And now I know what BNSF means by “solutions.” 

 “Galesburg, with a population of about 31,000, is a city of interesting past personalities,” 
 I learned.  “It gave us Carl Sandburg, the author; Charles Walgreen, who founded the drug store empire; and George Ferris, who invented the Ferris wheel.”  
That ever-useful research source Wikipedia helpfully pointed out that “According to legend, it was in Galesburg, at the Gaity Theatre in 1914, where the four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Gummo) first received their nicknames.”

More to the point, Wikipedia also summarized Galeburg’s relationship to BNSF:

Throughout much of its history, Galesburg has been inextricably tied to the railroad industry. . .   

In the late 19th century, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway connected its service through to Chicago, it also laid track through Galesburg, making this city one of relatively few of its size to be served by multiple railroads and even fewer to have multiple railroad depots. . . A series of mergers eventually united both lines under the ownership of BNSF Railway, carrying an average of seven trains per hour between them. As of the closing of the Maytag plant in fall of 2004, BNSF is once again the largest private employer in Galesburg.

So.  Seven trains per hour, in a town that is beholden for employment to BNSF.  That sounds like the optimal formula for a story of good railroad-town relations.  I expected to read about the fruits of reciprocal loyalty, resulting in a template for the mitigation of impacts that we could hope for in Bellingham throughout the state.

What I learned was a little bit disheartening.

From what I can tell, BNSF is stepping up to pay for somewhere around 2% of the cost of mitigating the impacts of rail traffic on Galesburg.  If that’s the solution that BNSF is touting, we’re talking about a pretty massive public subsidy for the export of our coal to China.  And a lot of impacts that simply won't be mitigated.

Here’s what I found, based on letting my fingers do the walking around the internet.  If anybody knows better, do chime in.

Over the decades, Galesburg and the railroads have struggled over how to protect the town from the effects of railroads.  According to a local historian (“Railroad wants crossings closed; city wants bridges,” Tom Wilson, Galesburg Register-Mail, May 21, 2011 ),

The definition of a dilemma is “a problem that seems to defy a satisfactory solution between two disputing parties.” A case could be built that the railroad and the citizens of Galesburg have long faced such a situation over the operation of local railroad crossings.

In the 1970s, the railroad (Atcheson, Topka and Santa Fe, at that time) didn’t want to pay to maintain at-grade crossings, so it told the city to close six or seven crossings.  One Alderman complained “The Santa Fe wants to sock it to us. They want to destroy my ward. I feel the city should not agree to close one single crossing,” and demanded that the railroad should pay for a bridge crossing.  The railroad refused.  Eventually, the city was forced to close two crossings, but it did get a railroad bridge:

Following several public hearings the [Illinois Commerce Commssion] granted Galesburg a petition to construct a bridge over Farnham Street at an estimated cost of $415,000. Of that amount, $187,333 would come from state grade crossing protection fund, $35,000 from the railroad and $192,667 from Galesburg.

So the railroad was on the hook for about 8% of the cost of the bridge, the little city paid 46% (and lost two crossings), and taxpayers in general – including the state – picked up 92% of the cost.

As far as I can tell, that was the high water mark for railroad contributions to mitigation in Galesburg.
Fast-forward to 2010.  Grade crossing mitigation and two railroad overpasses are funded for Galesburg. 

·        The federal Department of Transportation set aside almost $3 million ($2,922,000, to be exact) for Galesburg.  This was from a budget category that didn’t carry forward past 2010, so it looks like one-time stimulus funds.  See for yourself.  

·         And the state of Illinois created jobs in Galesburg, too:

"As part of the state of Illinois’ capital construction bill, Illinois Jobs Now!, the city of Galesburg received $33.5 million toward the construction of two railroad overpasses on West Main (U.S. 150) and Seminary streets."

OK, so far, taxpayers are paying for about $36.5 million to reduce the impacts of train traffic on Galesburg.  What about BNSF’s share?

Well, that came up during a candidates’ forum in Galesburg in 2011.  It seems that the city wants to implement “quiet zones” to reduce the noise from train whistles.  Candidates seemed to agree that the railroad should pay. 

How much was the railroad planning to pay?

“BNSF has promised to commit $735,000 of the roughly $2.5 million cost to close crossings and implement the quiet zones. The Illinois Commerce Commission has promised a further $550,000, while the Illinois Department of Transportation has committed $60,000, leaving the city to cover the remaining cost of about $1 million.”  

"Candidates sound off on railroad crossings,"  Eric Timmons, Galesburg Register-Mail, March 31, 2011.

Now, maybe BNSF is a secret Santa, and its largesse is hidden from the casual Googler.  But BNSF said to look at Galesburg, and I did, and here’s what I found:

Taxpayers:  $38,032,000
BNSF:        $     735,000

BNSF appears to be chipping in less than 2% of the cost of mitigation.

In the case of Bellingham, that means that, once the State of Washington has set aside many millions of dollars for overpasses, and the federal government has given us a stimulus package of a few more million, we too can have the kind of “solutions” that BNSF promotes for train traffic.  And BNSF itself just might chip in a few pennies to seal the deal.

A more likely mitigation measure:  calligraphy lessons, so we use our time gainfully while we wait for the trains to go by.

Looking on the bright side, if we all take books with us whenever we drive around Bellingham, perhaps Village Books will benefit. 

And only a nay-sayer would worry about whether patients being transported in ambulances will benefit from long culture breaks at the railroad crossings.