Protecting the Panhandle from Coal Exports and Oil Trains

Monitoring the Risks of Fossil Fuel Transport

Train noise keeping you up at night more lately? Feel like you keep getting stuck at railroad crossings, as long trains block intersections? Well, if oil and coal export terminals proposed along the Pacific Coast are approved, be prepared for even more train noise, traffic delays and a host of other problems.

Brief History of the Issue

In the past two decades, the Pacific Northwest was targeted as the prime location for a variety of fossil fuel export terminals. At one point, upwards of 12 facilities were proposed to be built in Oregon and Washington to satisfy Chinese and Asian demand for coal and oil.

These terminal proposals presented a problem for Idaho because the state’s Panhandle is where the majority of the trains coming from the northern half of the U.S. are funneled through to West Coast destinations. Some of these proposals alone could have increased rail line traffic through North Idaho by dozens of trains per day. And this would have spelled bad news for Idaho on a number of different levels.

  • Health and safety: Increasing noise and air pollution from coal dust and diesel fumes would affect Idaho residents. More oil trains also increase the risk of derailment and explosion, which is of special concern considering the urban areas many trains pass through. And greater numbers of trains means more traffic delays and delays for our emergency first responders. There is no upside for Idaho families.
  • Higher bills: 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: Rail companies stubbornly refuse to cover train cars carrying coal. This subjects Lake Pend Oreille and other critical water resources to pollution from coal dust. The dust can also cause maintenance problems along railroad tracks. The possibility of a train car carrying oil derailing and spilling poses even greater threats to our water, aquatic species and our local economy.
  • Climate change: Idaho continues to suffer the consequences of climate change, including low snow packs, early spring runoff, and wildfires of increasing numbers and strength. These consequences will continue and intensify so long as we turn a blind eye to coal and oil being transported through our state to be burnt in Asia.

Given these high stakes, ICL participates with a group of regional partners, collectively known as The Thin Green Line, to oppose new fossil fuel export terminals. As a result of this grassroots activism, an impressive number of terminal proposals have been delayed, denied permits or scrapped altogether.

Where the Issue Stands

Because thousands of people came together, got involved and spoke out, the last two major fossil fuel export facilities have either failed to secure necessary permits or been outright rejected by the state of Washington. This is a big deal—it’s not every day that average citizens overcome the interests of the coal and oil industries.

But the danger of transporting fossil fuels and other dangerous materials by rail isn’t gone. Many communities in North Idaho are still at risk from train derailments and spills that could forever impact the water we depend on.

BSNF Railway has filed paperwork to construct a second railroad bridge across Lake Pend Oreille. It is likely that adding this bridge would accommodate more trains carrying oil, coal and other dangerous materials, even when Idaho is not fully prepared to respond to a derailment, especially if it occurred over Lake Pend Oreille or the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

When it comes to railroads and trains, North Idaho gains very little from proposals like these but shoulders all the costs. That’s why we’re asking our elected officials to make sure coal and oil shippers are held accountable for the potential impacts to Idaho, and that our state invests in inspectors and other safety precautions that help prevent derailments from happening in the first place. 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. Watch our Take Action page for current opportunities to comment.

Read More About Coal and Oil Trains

For more information about our efforts, email Matt Nykiel in our Sandpoint field office, or call him at 208.265.9565.