On April 13, Nick Engelfried learned there was a black mess being cleaned up along the tracks at the Missoula Rail Yard. When he got there, it appeared the mess was coal. "You could see that cloud of dust rising up," Engelfried says.
Engelfried and his friend Bryan Nickerson, who are members of the grassroots environmental group Blue Skies Campaign, took photos and on May 7 presented them to the Missoula City Council. The presentation marked an effort to help persuade the governing body to officially oppose an anticipated increase in coal-train traffic as the second-largest U.S. coal producer, Arch Coal, attempts to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal in southeastern Montana and haul it by train to the West Coast.
Organizations like the Western Organization of Resource Councils estimate that if coal exporters get approval to construct new West Coast shipping terminals, coal-train traffic across the state will increase by roughly 60 trains per day. It remains to be seen how many of them would travel Montana's southern rail route, through Missoula.
When making their presentation before council, Engelfried and Nickerson hypothesized that the mess along the Montana Rail Link line on April 13 resulted from a train spill or derailment.
MRL Spokeswoman Lynda Frost says that wasn't the case. The mess, she says, was generated during a yard cleanup. "The material swept from the rails is a compilation of dirt and materials from the last several years," she said in an email.
To date, there's no data to document whether there's an accumulation of coal dust along the Missoula line. The Missoula City-County Health Department is waiting on the results of four recently collected dust samples. And, in light of the fact that coal producers need federal approval to build the coal export facilities on the West Coast, Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier is asking his council peers to approve a resolution asking the federal government to scrutinize the cumulative impacts of increased rail traffic along the shipping route. Oregon's governor issued a similar request last month.
Strohmaeir says such a study could help Missoula put science to what has thus far been mostly speculation. "Before we flat-footedly say 'Yea' or 'Nay' to anything, we need to clearly know what the impacts are."