Breathe that train 

Could more coal mining hurt Missoula's Northside?

Mark Kersting wakes up many nights to the squeals, screeches and crashes that come with living down the street from Montana Rail Link's downtown Missoula rail yard. "I've nearly had plate glass windows broken in my business," he says. "There is physical evidence that literally, over the years, houses have shifted off of their naturally set foundations, because of just years and years of vibration." What's worse, Kersting says, is the train emissions that fill his North 1st Street West home. "I've been made physically ill," he says. "You become nauseous."

click to enlarge The Missoula railyard could someday see a spike in coal train traffic. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Kersting lives and works in the 120-year-old Stensrud Building, on Missoula's Northside. He purchased the historic Victorian 10 years ago and renovated the redbrick building. Despite his love for the structure and the neighborhood, over the years, Kersting says, he's become increasingly worried about how rail operations are affecting his health and that of his neighbors. "If I'd have known what I know now," he says, "I probably would have not renovated the Stensrud Building."

Train emissions carry small particulate matter capable of bypassing the body's defenses and lodging in the lungs. Locomotive engines also produce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and polycyclic hydrocarbons, says Missoula City County Health Department Air Quality Specialist Benjamin Schmidt. "Emissions coming from diesel fumes do have cancer-causing effects, potentially," Schmidt says. People who live near a rail yard are most vulnerable, he adds. "If you're in a plume, you're getting a pretty thick blast of it...It's more of a localized concern."

Locomotives today are significantly easier on the environment and human health than they were a century ago. Throughout the past several years, Montana Rail Link, which operates the Missoula train yard, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the rail lines that come through it, have upgraded their fleets with new trains and technology, aiming in part to curb emissions. "New technology allows railroads to shut down locomotives more often, which reduces overall idle time and noise," says MRL spokesperson Lynda Frost. "More than 90 percent of the locomotives that pass through Missoula are the property of BNSF and are state-of-the-art engines."

MRL is also quick to point out that rails are a more efficient way to transport goods than, say, trucks. A freight train can carry the load of 280 or more trucks. And according to a 2009 report by the Association of American Railroads, freight rails account for just 2.6 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from transportation-related sources.

Yet Kersting is worried now more than ever. His concerns stem largely from the fact that the second-largest U.S. coal producer, Arch Coal, is attempting to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal in Southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley. The coal would be transported by rail to West Coast ports and on to markets in Asia. "You think it's bad now?" Kersting says. "You just wait until they start shipping all these uncovered coal cars."

Railcars would head west on Montana's northern or southern rail routes, or both. University of Montana economist Tom Power calculates that if planned coal export terminals on the West Coast realize an export capacity of 140 million tons per year, as some estimate, it would require about 30 loaded coal trains, 125 cars long, to cross the state every day. Then they'd come back. That's 60 trains a day. If the trains were split evenly between the northern and southern routes, they would pass through Missoula—and right past Kersting's building—about once every hour.

Spiking traffic will bring more emissions, and also more coal dust. According to BNSF, individual coal cars lose roughly 500 pounds of coal and coal dust in every 500 miles traveled. Coal dust causes pneumoconiosis, bronchitis and emphysema.

It also jeopardizes the structural integrity of railroad tracks. Dust clogs ballast pathways, reducing drainage. With all that in mind, BNSF is moving to better contain coal, telling shippers that they must use a chemical suppression topper agent or reduce dust by another means by at least 85 percent by Oct. 1. According to MRL, all coal trains that pass through Missoula originate with BNSF.

Even with BNSF's new rule in place, environmental groups warn that transporting millions of tons of Otter Creek coal remains an unhealthy prospect. "I don't think anybody is under the impression that they've eliminated that problem," says Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman. "The second question is, what's in the [suppression] chemicals?"

As for Kersting, he's lobbying lawmakers to intervene. Among those he's calling upon is Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier.

"I will probably, at some point in the not too distant future, be making a referral on this subject," says Strohmaier, who represents downtown and part of the Northside. He also presides over Missoula's Public Safety and Health Committee. "I have a vested interest in making sure we do our best to mitigate adverse impacts."

In Kersting's perfect world, MRL, with help from the city and taxpayers, would move its rail yard to a less populated area. As far as he's concerned, that's only fair.

"We're paying the same tax rate as anyone else in most districts of the city," he says. "But we're getting a much (worse) quality of life."

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