Spokane Journal of Business

Coal trains aren't a safety concern

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My first duty as Spokane County Sheriff is to ensure the safety of our citizens. Any issue that could impact the ability of the Spokane County Sheriff's Department to respond to an emergency in a timely manner naturally gets my attention.

So when opponents of the proposed coal-export terminals in the Northwest ran TV ads here claiming an increase in train traffic poses a threat to public safety, I investigated. From my personal review of the claim, it simply isn't true in Spokane.

What I have found is there is a lot of misinformation circulating regarding train counts if all five of these proposed facilities are built. Opponents have misrepresented or exaggerated train count numbers to convince people to join the opposition and to attempt to stop these facilities from being built.

Even if all of the proposed terminals are built, BNSF Railway Co. would have exclusive access to only one of them—the Gateway Pacific Terminal, near Bellingham, Wash. This facility is being permitted to accommodate one to nine loaded trains a day. So at a maximum, this would mean an additional 18 trains moving through Spokane a day.

Currently, the busiest section of track on the Spokane subdivision is averaging about 60 trains a day—this includes BNSF, Union Pacific, and Amtrak trains. An increase in traffic from these proposed terminals would bring us to roughly the same numbers of trains running through Spokane as we saw in 2006.

The Sheriff's Department had no issue with train traffic in responding to emergencies in 2006 and wouldn't under this proposal. It's important to know that fire department chiefs in the county who were asked about this issue said they aren't concerned about this possible increase in train traffic.

Trains passing through Spokane County have been part of this community's life for many decades. Emergency responders are well adapted to their presence in the day-to-day operations of their departments. We are well trained in taking the appropriate streets and arterials with elevated or tunnel crossings to avoid at-grade train crossings during an emergency. The construction of the Argonne and Sullivan overpasses eliminated major crossing issues in the Spokane Valley.

Another issue raised by opponents regards a potential spill of coal in our community. Of course, any spill would be unfortunate, but coal is a nonhazardous material and wouldn't create a dangerous hazard to the public. All public-safety responders have well-rehearsed plans to deal effectively with any spill situation. Again, coal doesn't create special concerns from a spill perspective.

The bottom line is, don't believe what the opponents of the coal terminals say about the effects of increased train traffic as they relate to public safety. These are just scare tactics. The proposed increases won't hamper our ability to respond to the emergency needs of county residents.

Trains are a major part of our state's economy, and Spokane respects the rail system's role in creating jobs and tax revenues for Washington. Our coastal ports are heavily freight dependent, and both BNSF and independent studies have shown that plenty of capacity exists on the rails to handle additional trains without affecting those industries already using the system.

In fact, BNSF has stated that these terminals would spur additional private investment to improve our region's rail lines, something that benefits not only the terminals, but other commercial users as well.

It's important for our citizens to know the facts. The public will be safe with the proposed increase in train traffic. I am personally excited about the construction of these terminals once they go through proper review. This means real jobs and economic growth in our region. That's something we should all support.

  • Ozzie KnezovichD.

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