Friday, August 31, 2012

BNSF Says That the Community Needs More Information, and We Agree

Taken on my cell phone while standing near the Chrysalis Hotel in Bellingham.

The CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad recently said that BNSF owes us (referring to the entire state of Washington, I gather) "more information" about the impacts of proposed coal export terminals. 

That is an astute observation, and Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions took him at his word.  In an excellent open letter (the link is here), Ross asked BNSF for the information that we need. 

I particularly enjoyed the reference to Galesburg, Illinois.  Those who want more information on Galesburg can find it right here, on Get Whatcom Planning -- here's the link.
For those who don't like to follow links, here's Ross Macfarlane's letter.  I hope it gets a complete response.  If so, we'll certainly report that here --  and I hope that all those lesser media outlets listed in the cc also cover it.

Dear Mr. Rose,
We wanted to thank you for recently visiting the Northwest. We’re sorry that we didn’t have a chance to chat about the subject that brought you to our region: coal export.

In your recent interview with The Columbian, you said, “we owe you as a community more information” about the impacts from proposed coal terminals on Northwest communities. We agree. We hope that you will join us in requesting an independent analysis of the impacts of these projects. Many state and local officials have commented that it is very difficult to get basic information from the railroad about volumes, routings, potential impacts or proposed mitigation of the increased coal train traffic through the region. We hope your comments mean that you will direct BNSF to engage and provide needed information to all affected communities and stakeholders. Every community affected by these proposals, from Billings to Bellingham, is very interested to get clear information on some key issues given that you intend to increase your company’s presence in our region.

Here’s what we need most from you:

Show us your math on the coal trains. We’re a bit perplexed by your assertions regarding the current five proposals in OR and WA. You claimed that the estimates for coal train traffic are overstated, and that 8-16 “coal-bearing” trains per day are likely to go through the Columbia Gorge, moving between 50-100 million tons of coal per year. Presumably, those trains would have to make return trips too, so the number is double what you are suggesting (since we assume “coal-bearing” means they have coal inside the cars). Communities really need to know the likely number and length of those trains to be able to evaluate the impacts.

Level with communities about the scale of these proposals. Even 50 million tons of new coal would create a massive increase in current volumes. The railroads currently ship about 80 million tons of all freight per year to Washington and Oregon, and your estimates show a 60 – 120% increases in rail freight through affected communities. This doesn’t include increases in other traffic, including Bakken shale oil. You must do planning for capacity purposes: can you share this information so that communities can begin to plan for the impacts?

Tell us which proposals you support. BNSF has previously presented itself as a neutral bystander obligated to accept cargo from any shipper. Yet your media tour promoting coal export paints a very different picture. BNSF is a member of the coal industry “Astroturf” (the media’s words, not just ours) group, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports. That coal-industry funded effort promotes the need for all of these terminals. The CEO of Peabody Coal, a key customer of the Cherry Point project, has talked about a coal “supercycle” which would create the demand for hundreds of millions of tons exported off the West Coast. Are there practical limits on the volumes of coal that the NW rail system could accommodate? If so, wouldn’t you agree that those limitations be considered during project review and permitting? With a 48 million ton proposal on the table at Cherry Point, a 44 million ton project in Longview, almost 40 million tons proposed in two different sites on the Columbia River and another 10 million tons for Coos Bay (not to mention potential increases at Canadian ports which your spokesmen tell us are inevitable – though we disagree), don’t we need to take close look at what would happen if any significant number of these projects move forward?

Put some numbers behind how BNSF would “help” with rail upgrades. You acknowledge that many communities would face very significant issues with traffic, emergency response and other impacts and say that you want to help these communities “work through” these issues. Will the railroad commit to helping fund the projects needed to address these impacts? Previously, a BNSF spokesperson pointed to Galesburg, IL as a model for community/railroad collaboration. In that example, the railroad apparently paid for two percent of mitigation-related improvements. Federal law typically allows the railroad to limit its contribution to five percent. Is that how BNSF plans to help Northwest communities “work through ” these issues?

Tell us how you plan to handle the capacity increases. You have indicated that BNSF would make major improvements to accommodate the increased traffic along already bottlenecked rail segments. That sounds like an easy fix, but what about the local areas, including Bellingham and the Columbia Gorge, that would see significant impacts like double-tracking and lengthy sidings? Will you share your plans for needed improvements? To meet the massive increase in coal train traffic, do you plan to let private landowners and local officials know what property you intend to condemn for any needed expansion? If so, when?

Tell us what happens to passenger rail and other freight trains. If we begin moving massive amounts of coal by rail through the Northwest how would that impact current or anticipated increases in passenger rail service and how can the public be certain that they are not subsidizing private freight when they ride the rails? What would the impacts be on other shippers – many that are your customers -- that are already having a harder time getting fair and timely access to rail service?

Keeping the coal trains on the tracks: As you know, this summer has seen a spate of coal-train derailments around the country. There have now been at least a dozen, including one in Washington state and two accidents with fatalities. These derailments can cause property destruction, pollution, congestion and even deaths. Why are so many coal trains coming off the rails? What role does coal dust and coal train traffic play in these derailments?

BNSF has stated on its website that “…BNSF has determined that coal dust poses a serious threat to the stability of the track structure and thus to the operational integrity of our lines in the Powder River Basin.” In 2005, the Vice President of Transportation at BNSF testified that coal dust was “absolutely a contributing factor” in back-to-back train derailments that year.

What steps would you take to ensure that this does not create unacceptable risks to Northwest communities and sensitive ecosystems?

Give us more clarity about coal dust. BNSF spokespeople are constantly saying that the dust issue is overblown, but the studies showing it may be a significant problem come from your own website. Industry reports say that your guidelines for dust suppression aren’t being enforced or widely followed. Is this true, and what data do you have to show surfactants are working? Also, can you let communities know why coal cars are not covered? Is this because of the risk of fire and explosions, or are shippers simply unwilling to incur the costs? If coal dust is not a concern, why would Portland General Electric, a utility that operates a coal plant, decide to veto a lease deal with Kinder Morgan for the 30 million ton coal terminal adjacent to its natural gas power plant, citing coal dust (and traffic congestion) as an impairment to the operation the Port Westward plant?

Join us in supporting an area-wide and cumulative review of these five proposals. We are glad you recognize that BNSF has a responsibility to be forthcoming with local communities about the impacts of coal export. We take you at your word that BNSF wants to be a part of any solution and would help. The first step to that is ensuring local communities and stakeholders are fully aware of the full scope of the possible impacts.You should join the 300+ health professionals, 88 faith leaders, and 400 local businesses (mostly from smaller rail line communities), the elected officials and agencies (now approximately 90 local elected officials) that have called for a full review of the proposals before moving forward. As you told The Columbian, “This is a real issue. We don’t deny that eight trains a day or 10 trains a day is going to be an issue.” These communities have a right to know specifically how it will impact them and what steps they can take to protect their citizens and employers.

We look forward to hearing from you and would welcome the chance to meet with you and community leaders to discuss these concerns. We would expect that you would want to talk to all parties concerned about the issues with coal export.

Ross Macfarlane
Climate Solutions Senior Advisor, Business Partnerships
Power Past Coal coalition

Governor Gregoire
Governor Kitzhaber
Army Corps of Engineers
WA Dept. of Ecology
State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, Dept. of Natural Resources OR Dept. of State Lands
Senators Murray, Cantwell, Merkley, Wyden and Tester
Washington Transportation Commission
The Seattle Times
The Spokesman-Review
The Bellingham Herald
The Columbian
The Oregonian
Oregon Public Broadcasting

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rural Element: No Peace In Our Time

The County Council approved a revised Rural Element last night, and Council Chair Kathy Kershner stated that it would have absolutely no effect on stopping sprawl. 

Which goes to show that we can agree about something.

The revised Rural Element and zoning code are an awful mess.  There’s no vision, the details have become so complex and convoluted that an attorney with a quarter century of experience reading zoning codes (that’s me) can’t figure out what the heck it means, and –

the County still proposes to allow enough development outside cities to accommodate all of its projected growth between now and 2029.  

 As we demonstrated in comments to the County, Rural and “Resource” lands (areas designated for farms and forests) still can accommodate 49,276 more people that the County has planned for.

If for no other reason, this matters because of water.  Our watersheds are mostly closed for new surface water withdrawals, either year-round or seasonally.  At least half of the County’s farmers don’t have water rights.  The only folks who aren’t worrying about water rights are those who will build homes, because they can use “exempt wells”:  wells that can be drilled without having to acquire a water right.

Wells tap into groundwater.  Many farmers use groundwater.  You see the problem.

As we stated in comments to the County, 2,384 wells have been drilled in the Rural area in the past 15 years, and 69% of those wells were drilled in basins that are closed for further surface water appropriation.

“Planning” is supposed to be a way to apply human ingenuity to avoid bad results.  We can “plan” to use our water resources wisely, or we can wait until a crisis occurs. 

That crisis might be the result of a court adjudication of water rights. 

It might be the extraordinary cost of providing water to homes and businesses that don’t have clean water. 

It might be the extinction of wild salmon.

Once we reach any or all of these crisis points, will the County regret its failure to plan?  Who knows.  If we’re all lucky, we’ll manage to kick this bucket down the road to our kids and grandkids.

In any event, we’ve reached the point where “planning” is simply not supposed to be talked about in a County Council meeting.  At last night’s public hearing before the Council, we were excoriated for suggesting that planning for the Rural Element should reflect the availability of water.

But then, to be fair, I was excoriated for everything I said last night. 

My suggestion that the County should talk to those of us who are promoting Growth Management Act compliance, in addition to talking to developers and their attorneys, was particularly reviled.  I was told that it reflected badly on my character.  My suggestion that we might talk through the issues rather than continuing to litigate the issues, which echoed a proposal by Futurewise, led to nothing but a disgusted uproar.

Note to self:  the hand that extends the olive branch gets slapped. 

The Council majority has taken a stance:  it would rather fight to the death than talk to people it disagrees with. Because there still are Whatcom County residents who believe in planning and the rule of law, this means . . . here we go again.