Air quality, traffic impacts and health issues from coal trains get new interest (Montana)

Source: Helena Independent Record

October 25, 2014 6:52 pm  •  
The Lewis and Clark City-County Board of Health is asking for an opportunity to comment on coal-train traffic when the time comes, and also for more information on trains and train traffic in Lewis and Clark County.
coal trainsThe board approved letters to the Surface Transportation Board and to Montana Rail Link when it met last week.
Train traffic through Helena has become a community concern because of the delays that can result for traffic and the delivery of emergency services when streets are blocked by passing trains.
The potential for additional train traffic should ports be built on the West Coast for the export of coal has created concern because of coal dust, increased diesel emissions from locomotives and emissions from idling vehicles waiting for trains to cross city streets.
The letters come after members of the Sleeping Giant Citizens Council, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council, spoke to the board of health this summer and wrote to outline their concerns.
“What we’re really asking the Surface Transportation Board is to consider us,” said Melanie Reynolds, the Lewis and Clark City-County health officer.
“We want to be able to comment at an appropriate time,” she added.
The website for the Surface Transportation Board’s Office of Environmental Analysis said it anticipates release of a draft environmental impact statement in the spring of 2015.
Helena Mayor Jim Smith, a member of the board of health, said he supported sending the letters.
“I felt there were a lot of genuine citizen concerns” with rail traffic, Smith said after the board approved the letters.
The City of Helena wrote the Portland, Oregon, office of the Army Corps of Engineers on June 7, 2012, to say “the development of one or more proposed coal-export terminal projects in Washington or Oregon may result in a substantial increase in train traffic through our community. We respectfully request that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers take the potential effects of this increased traffic through Helena into account when conducting an environmental review of these proposals.”
The rail line, which is managed by Montana Rail Link, bisects Helena with crossings at eight streets and Interstate 15, the city’s 2012 letter noted.
While two crossings and the interstate have grade separations, the Montana Avenue crossing lacks a grade separation and traffic delays there have been an issue in Helena for decades, the letter stated.
“A substantial increase in rail traffic would greatly exacerbate these delays and adversely affect transportation in Helena,” stated the letter signed by commissoners Dick Thweatt, Matthew Elsaesser and Katherine Haque-Hausrath.
The board of health’s letter to Ken Blodgett with the Office of Environmental Analysis at the Surface Transportation Board, asked to be kept informed of progress on construction of the Tongue River Railroad. It also seeks the opportunity to review data and submit comments.
“Our interest in this project stems from the potential impacts to human health as a consequence of increased rail traffic through Southern Lewis and Clark County, and the towns of East Helena and Helena,” the letter stated.
Of specific concern is air quality as the Helena Valley is “particularly vulnerable” to air inversions during the winter months, according to the letter.
“We often exceed the US (Environmental Protection Agency) ambient air standards for 24-hourparticulate matter pollution (PM2.5) during inversions.
“Increased diesel exhaust and the potential for coal dust pollution may exacerbate the problem and we would like to more thoroughly understand what steps can be taken to address the potential for pollution from increased train traffic,” the letter stated.
Also noted of concern was that longer and/or more frequent train traffic will result in increased idling by vehicles and increase exhaust pollution, the letter continued.
“Local governments do not have funding to upgrade these crossings or to construct underpasses or overpasses, so it is likely that increased train traffic will directly affect air quality in out county.”
The issue of noise pollution was also raised and was said to be “a proven health hazard, particularly for persons living close to train tracks.
“Increased noise exposure can cause cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment of children, sleep disruption and increased fatigue,” the letter stated.
The letter being sent to Tom Walsh with MRL in Missoula asks for information on:
  • Daily average number of trains that traverse the county;
  • Daily average number of coal trains, both laden and unladen;
  • Average and maximum length of trains, and/or expected time of at-grade crossing closures per train;
  • The speed(s) at which trains pass through the county and
  • Amount of time that trains idle in the rail yards on a daily basis.
“This request is only one part on an over-all approach to protecting air quality on a local level,” the letter said. It also asked for an opportunity to speak with Walsh regarding the board’s local air quality protection program and efforts to meet EPA standards.
Michael Lee, a member of the Sleeping Giant Citizens Council, said the organization’s members are very concerned with the health impacts associated with train traffic.
Lee spoke during the board of health meeting and said afterward that the letters raise important concerns, especially in regard to air quality.
The demand for coal exports has created concern in many of the communities along the MRL tracks as the number of trains could increase if ports are built to handle the demand.
The Associated Press reported in February that federal and Washington state officials agreed to consider a sweeping environmental review of the effects of a proposed terminal along the Columbia River that would export millions of tons of coal to Asia.
“Train traffic is going to increase,” Lee said. “It has the potential to increase substantially.”
“There’s a public safety factor here, there’s the health impacts,” he said.
Based on the possible production of the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine, located in the eastern part of the state, Lee said the average daily number of coal trains could increase from the current five — 2.5 are loaded with coal and an equal number are empty — to between seven and 15.
“We want to ensure that the quality of life in terms of air quality, water quality is protected in Lewis and Clark County and not degraded with more train traffic,” Lee said.
Missoula and Whitefish have also expressed their interest in being kept informed by the Surface Transportation Board, according to the Northern Plains Resource Council. The Gallatin City-County Board of Health has also noted its interest as has the Missoula City-County Air Pollution Control Board.
Al Knauber can be reached at