Northwest's green image tested by rail plans

Kirk Johnson / New York Times News Service /


Published Aug 21, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

SPOKANE, Wash. — The Pacific Northwest’s sense of itself can sometimes seem green to the point of parody: a medium-roast blend of piney peaks and urban cool, populated by residents who look descended from lumberjacks or fishermen.

Now, plans by the energy industry to move ever-increasing amounts of coal and oil through the region by rail, bound for Asia, are pulling at all the threads of that self-portrait.

Last September, the first trains of crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota began chugging through. Since then, proposals have been drafted for new storage, handling and shipment capability almost equivalent to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which is facing a deeply uncertain path of federal regulatory approval.

Milelong trains from the coal mines of Wyoming already run daily, and the load could more than double if three big proposed export terminals gain approval and financing.

The expected outrage has ensued.

The proposals “do violence to many Northwesterners’ concept of their place and what it stands for,” Alan Durning, the founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute, an environmental research group in Seattle, said in an email.

Environmental groups led by the Sierra Club have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the BNSF Railway, which dominates the freight system, of violating the federal Clean Water Act by letting coal spill into waterways from its tracks. Washington state, in assessing the permit application of a proposed coal terminal near Bellingham, said in July that it would take a macro-environmental approach, looking at impacts of the project along the entire length of the coal transit route, including the burning of the coal in China.

But with the promise of jobs, the effort is moving ahead. The biggest oil shipment project yet proposed, which would be able to process about 360,000 barrels a day, was given an initial lease approval by the Port of Vancouver, Wash. The reality of the Northwest’s environmental image has always been more nuanced than the stereotype suggests. Huge dams on the Columbia River make Washington and Oregon No. 1 and 2 in the nation in renewable hydroelectricity. But the cheap electricity from those dams fostered an aerospace industry that is hardly carbon neutral. A multistate planning compact made the region a national leader in energy efficiency. But Washington’s big oil refineries can pump out more old-fashioned gasoline than all but a handful of other states.

In the rail debate, the new, more complicated reality could be heard in the voice of Steve Salvatori, a Spokane City Council member who described himself as a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican. He sees energy development as hugely important and positive for the nation, he said.

“I’m very excited over the possibility of us being energy independent, and I love the domestic job capability that that brings,” he said.

Because of a constriction point on the rail grid known as the Spokane funnel, every one of those energy trains on the horizon — 60 a day by some estimates, empty and full — would come right through the middle of Spokane, Washington’s second-largest city, with a population of 209,000.

“Spokane is the canary in the mine,” said Ken Casavant, a professor of economics and the director of the Freight Policy Transportation Institute at Washington State University. “They’re in the middle.”

Spokane grew up with the rattling of the rails as its theme song. As a transfer hub for freight and passenger service — four competing intercontinental lines once met on the edge of town — the city hitched its star to the idea of America on the move. The graceful, filigreed architecture of downtown speaks to a moment around World War I when that economic chemistry reached its zenith.

But where the coastal areas around Seattle — a hotbed of energy-rail opposition — are largely liberal, Spokane is more conservative. Where the coast is rainy, Spokane is an arid, rain-shadow city. Perhaps most crucially, where the Puget Sound region has boomed in the post-recession years, Spokane has struggled. The unemployment rate here was 8.1 percent in June, according to federal figures, compared with 5.9 percent in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area.

Bart Mihailovich, whose Spokane Riverkeeper group has been collecting spill samples along the waterways near the city and is a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, said even if critics of the rail expansion are successful in some areas of western Washington, plans could shift to other localities and the results would be the same for Spokane: trains going through, bound for the coast. “Spokane doesn’t win,” he said.

One of the major issues has been safety. Salvatori stressed that he is not yet convinced there will be risks to Spokane. Questions about spilled coal dust raised by the federal lawsuit should be something that the railroad should be able to disprove, or not. “Dust should be verifiable,” he said.

A spokeswoman for BNSF, Courtney Wallace, said a widely reported figure used by critics — that each car on a train can lose a ton of coal in transit — was a rough approximation made years ago by the railroad, and that the dust losses were mostly close to the mines. Mitigation with a surfactant, begun in 2011, and the loading of coal into rounded loaf shapes have reduced that amount further still, she said.

Spokane’s City Council president, Ben Stuckart, said that concerns about oil trains have risen since a deadly derailment and fire in Quebec last month, but that the evidence of coal spillage was already there. “Yesterday down at the gorge, volunteers found that, right by our river at Hangman Creek,” said Stuckart, pointing to a sandwich-sized bag of dark chunks on a conference table.

The BNSF spokeswoman, Wallace, said freight growth is economic growth. Even if none of the proposed terminals is built, she said, freight traffic through the region, which she said is down 26 percent from its peak in 2006, will increase as the nation’s economy rises.

“This is a good thing,” Wallace said in an email, “especially for a state like Washington, where one in four jobs is tied to trade.”