Protecting the Panhandle from Coal Exports and Oil Trains

Monitoring the Risks of Fossil Fuel Transport

North Idaho is seeing an ever increasing number of Bakken crude oil trains from the booming oil fields of North Dakota, putting rail-side communities in the blast zone.

Several oil terminals are proposed in Washington State that, if approved, could result in 22 oil trains a day passing through.

Meanwhile, coal companies, seeing little future growth domestically, have a new plan: strip mine coal in Montana and Wyoming, transport it on long coal trains through North Idaho to massive coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon.

We are monitoring two active export terminal proposals that, if built, would mean up to 95 million metric tons of coal each year traveling through our communities. That’s 36 mile-long coal trains a day—half of them full and half empty—rumbling through our rural towns, leaving a trail of as much as 21 tons of coal dust a day in their wake.

Coal dust is considered a “pernicious ballast foulant” by the railroad industry, meaning it causes maintenance problems along railroad tracks. This means the risk of derailments could increase as coal dust builds up along the tracks.

Between oil and coal shipments, North Idaho communities are facing a potential doubling of rail traffic.

Here are some impacts we anticipate:

  • Health and safety: Idaho families will suffer from air pollution from coal dust and diesel fumes, more noise and traffic, potential derailments and long train delays. There is no upside for Idaho families.
  • Economic risk: North Idaho’s clean water, quality of life and natural setting are a major driver for our economy. Railroads are not required to pay for needed safety improvements along rail lines, so taxpayers will be left with the bills to mitigate this enormous surge in train traffic.
  • Water pollution: Lake Pend Oreille is a priceless economic asset and one of the natural wonders of Idaho. Idaho’s surface water will be vulnerable to spills and subject to coal dust pollution that’s inevitable from hundreds of thousands of open coal cars crossing the state every year.
  • Air pollution: Idaho already feels the effects of climate change. If the three proposals go through, the greenhouse gases emitted would be more than that from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, much of the mercury produced from burning coal in Asia will blow back to deposit in Idaho’s lakes, poisoning our fish.

Idaho gains nothing in this deal but shoulders the costs. We are asking our elected officials to make sure coal shippers are held accountable for the potential impacts to Idaho.

We also will be looking for every opportunity to make Idaho’s voice heard as decisions are made that could increase dirty coal and dangerous oil traffic through the Panhandle. Check our Take Action page for current opportunities to comment.

Here are some recent blog posts on the issue:


For more information about our efforts, email Susan Drumheller in our Sandpoint Field Office, or call her at (208) 265-9565.