Environmental Group Worries About Increase of Coal Trains

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Beth Kaeding of the Northern Plains Resource Council was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the newly formed Glacier Climate Action group in Whitefish. Kaeding discussed the possibility of more coal trains traveling through the Flathead Valley because of the Otter Creek Mine in southeast Montana and how that might affect local communities.

Glacier Climate Action was formed earlier this year and, until the April 2 meeting, went by the name Flathead Climate Alliance. Its interim coordinator Steve Thompson said the group plans on hosting more events in the future and wants to bring attention to climate change.

“What can we do?” he asked. “Well there is a lot of things we can do but the first thing we can do is to come together.”

At the heart of Kaeding’s presentation was the proposed Otter Creek Mine and the Tongue River Railroad, an 83-mile line near Miles City that would help move coal from Montana to the west coast for export to China. Although Kaeding said coal consumption in the United States has decreased by 14 percent since 2007, the export of American coal to China is increasing. Currently, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana ships 3 to 6 million tons of coal annually. Kaeding estimates that by 2017, there could be upwards of 75 million tons of coal moved out of the region every year and 170 million tons by 2022. That, she says, would result in more than 30 more trains a day across Montana.

“This is very cheap coal for China,” she said. “Coal companies will tell us coal is clean and cheap, but there is no such thing as clean coal.”

Kaeding believes more coal trains would affect communities in western Montana along the two rail lines that lead west out of the state. She said trains that are more than a mile long could result in traffic jams and increase pollution.

But Matthew Jones, BNSF Railway’s regional director for public affairs, says the Northern Plains Resource Council’s coal train estimates are inflated. He said since last year, the number of coal trains on BNSF has actually dropped. He also said most coal going west travels on Montana Rail Link, through Bozeman and Missoula, avoiding BNSF’s line through the Flathead Valley.

Jones, who attended the meeting in Whitefish, said rail traffic will increase in the coming years and that the railroad is working to expand capacity through Northwest Montana. More than 200 people work for BNSF out of Whitefish.

“We’re a proud member of this community. We live and work here and we want to be part of the conversation,” Jones said. “We want to be engaged with our communities and plan for (increased train traffic).”

Thompson says an increase in export coal and its use in China is still a concern for communities in Montana. He encouraged people to reduce their carbon footprint and inform others about climate change.

“This is the greatest issue facing humanity,” Thompson said. “This is very much a civil rights movement. This is a human rights movement.”

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