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Coal backlash

Can train shipments be derailed by citizens' concerns?

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It was so hot on the East Coast this week that the organizers of the famed Boston Marathon asked first-time runners to postpone till next year and urged front runners to slow down to avoid heat stroke. As monster storms ripped the nation's midland with 100 tornados in a single day, global warming skeptics faced a tougher time convincing the populace that humans are not contributing to the problem through atmospheric overloading of carbon dioxide. And coal, the "black gold" so wildly promoted by Gov. Schweitzer and virtually every Republican, is in the crosshairs of a backlash that spans everything from climatic concerns to negative effects of coal trains on the communities they pass through.

Mining more coal has been one of Schweitzer's goals since his first year in office. Dubbed the "Coal Cowboy" by national media, he was living up to the moniker last week by taking Chinese officials of the Guangdong Fuel Material Company on a tour of the Signal Peak and Rosebud mines. If and when the controversial Otter Creek coal deposits are developed, the output will dwarf existing mines.

In the early days of his coal campaign, Schweitzer declared that it was our job to show China and India the nascent and perhaps fictional technologies of "clean coal." Now, however, it seems the governor is content to simply sell the coal for whatever uses the Chinese and others may wish, clean or not.

But several developments have changed the game board for coal, and the realities of dealing with mass coal shipments have sparked a citizens' rebellion that may make future coal use less likely.

The development of natural gas reserves by horizontal drilling and fracking have dropped the bottom out of the coal market. Only a few years back, natural gas was predicted to go as high as $14 per million BTUs. Montanans braced for the enormous hit to their wallets not only from home heating costs, but from the massive increases that would accrue to taxpayers from heating schools and government buildings.

Last weekend, that price for natural gas was under $2. It's so low that analysts are predicting the fracking industry may wind down because it's becoming unprofitable to put more gas into the market. The effect of a glut of natural gas is also evident in energy production, where more electricity is being produced using natural gas systems as coal falls from favor for environmental and economic reasons. Unlike coal-fired generators, which burn continuously, natural gas generators can be fired as needed, providing significant flexibility and economic benefits for the operators as well as "firming" power for wind and solar's intermittent generation.

There also are very real issues arising from the specter of shipping coal from the nation's interior to the Pacific coast and thence to Asia's emerging economies. Being home to the largest coal deposits in America, Montanans are rightfully concerned about the impacts that coal trains will have on their communities.

Montanans who live anywhere near rail lines already know the incidence of long coal trains is growing. Given that our main urban centers were established in proximity to rail lines, people now find themselves stuck at railroad crossings where, by law, the trains can and do stop traffic for up to 15 minutes per train. If and when Otter Creek adds its output to the rail lines, it's estimated that 40 to 60 coal trains a day might pass through our communities. Such rail traffic will cause tremendous problems, not only for citizens, but also for emergency responders and law enforcement, while substantially increasing local air pollution as thousands of cars and trucks sit idling waiting for coal trains to pass. It's possible to build railroads over underpasses, but the cost to do so would be staggering, especially to local communities already struggling with budgetary constraints.

But even if the traffic problems could be solved, a whole other set of issues has recently been raised that could significantly alter plans for massive coal shipments by rail. As reported in the Missoulian this weekend, a lawsuit has been filed in California that challenges the rail industry's right to pollute the atmosphere with enormous amounts of diesel exhaust. The basis for the suit is that such exhausts are known human health hazards and thus should be regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The suit, brought by the Natural Resources Defense Fund and others against the rail companies Burlington-Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific, specifically charges that "people living near these rail yards...are in imminent and substantial danger of increased cancer risk, asthma, reduced lung function and other cardiovascular ailments, all as a result of the rail yards' diesel particulate pollution."

According to the Missoulian, Missoula attorney Jack Tuholske, who is researching the rights of local governments to regulate train pollution, said, "There are a lot of people that are concerned with this anticipated explosion in rail traffic to export Montana's coal to China. This is a regional assault in my view by the railroads on the air we breathe, the water we drink, for the benefit of foreign countries."

The suit and a host of other actions, from protesting new coal shipment ports to buying out coal mines and leaving the coal in the ground, should be a warning to the Chinese investors who visited Schweitzer last week. Climatic effects may still be coal's main issue, but getting the coal from Montana to the coast is creating a growing backlash by those who must suffer the impacts along the way.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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