Dec 14, 2012 6:36 AM by Drew Trafton- Q2 News
BILLINGS - Coal is the hot topic in the Pacific Northwest today, but the conversation taking place directly affects pocket books here in Montana and Wyoming.
A final public hearing is currently underway at the Washington Convention Center in downtown Seattle focusing on plans to build five coal train terminals in the states of Washington and Oregon.
The largest of those terminals, which would be built in Bellingham, Washington, could handle between 48 and 54 million tons of coal anually -- fuel which would then be shipped to a monstrously large (and growing) Asian market.
Opponents to the coal terminals point to a number of concerns with both the terminal sites and the railway communities impacted by the added traffic.
For instance, the proposed building site for the Bellingham, Washington terminal is located in a wetlands area which opponents say would critically damage an aquatic reserve.
In the more general conversation of dramatic increases in coal train traffic for railway communities, common concerns listed on coaltrainfacts.org include: snarled traffic, emergency response delays, toxic diesel and coal dust emissions, the risks of coal train derailment and marine spills and even mercury emissions deposited in the western U.S. from increase coal burning in Asia.
It's expected all of those concerns, and many more, will likely be brought up during the public hearing in Seattle on Thursday evening to a crowd largely comprised of people sympathetic toward environmental protection.
However, Washington and Oregon are not the only states involved in the conversation.
A matter of fact, the coal which would be shipped to those states would be coming from the Powder River Coal Basin which straddles Wyoming and Montana.
And the economic impact of developing and expanding projects related to mines in the basin, such as the Otter Creek Mine in Montana, is not something to be overlooked.
According to a study conducted by the University of Montana in June of 2012, development of the Otter Creek Mine in eastern Montana would result in a projected $200 million boost for the economy--$92 million of which would be generated by state and local taxes.
Bruce MacIntyre, director of Business Development and Government Affairs with the Billings Chamber of Commerce and CVB says that means an additional 300 jobs for the region, many of which will be added in Billings.
"For every one direct job, there are maybe 2 in support," said MacIntyre. " And a lot of that is going to have to come out of Billings. This is where they hub, this is where they find the sophisticated type of worker that they need. This is where they get them trained and this is where they get all of their equipment fixed."
Local opponents are quick to raise the same arguments raised nationally about the negative effects of train traffic.
However, another concern commonly brought up in Billings is the length of time downtown would be choked off from south Billings due to added traffic.
MacIntyre says many projections from opponents have grossly over exaggerated how much traffic would be coming through Billings.
According to Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Montana Rail Link, an average of 16 to 23 trains pass through Billings on an average day.
That statistic does not include engines traveling back and forth.
However, at maximum capacity, those companies say Billings could sustain eight to ten more trains a day.
Currently, it's unlikely that all five of those proposed terminals would be built or that all of the proposed terminals and one existing terminal would be operating at full capacity.
And even if they were, not every terminal would rely on Montana track for transport.
"We can't handle six. But we can sure handle two and we can move a lot of product," said MacIntyre.