Coal Trains Part 3 – Experts Weigh In

Inner southeast Portland is defined by train tracks. The rails enter under the Burnside Bridge, run close to the Willamette River through the Central Eastside Industrial District, and leave The Southeast Examiner distribution area at SE 17th Ave. and Powell Blvd. Sixteen intersections of southeast Portland streets and railroad tracks stop cars, cyclists, and pedestrians when trains are passing.

A controversial proposal to transport coal to Asia from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana would bring trains loaded with coal through southeast Portland on their way to Coos Bay. Supporters of the project believe that coal will create jobs, while those in opposition raise concerns about pollution, noise, traffic, and health risks.

In Part 1, close neighbors of southeast Portland’s railroad tracks expressed opinions regarding the coal transport proposal. In Part 2, local experts had their say. Here in Part 3, experts beyond southeast Portland have their say.

If an export terminal is built in Coos Bay, coal trains will pass through SE Portland. Project Mainstay is the name of the collaboration under consideration by the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay.

While developers of the four other proposed export projects are in the public record, Martin Callery, Chief Commercial Officer for the port, stated that he “cannot confirm or deny to the media the participants who make up the Project Mainstay partners”.

Should Project Mainstay and the port reach a commitment to move forward, the permitting and construction process would take at least five years, according to Callery.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Oregon Department of State Lands would be in involved in the permitting process, as would The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of the Army Corps of Engineers, Operations Division, Regulatory Branch.

“At the initial consultation it will be scoped what permits will actually be required,” said Callery. Should these permits be granted, the construction of the terminal, which would be paid for by Project Mainstay, would take from 18 months to two years. According to Callery, “In theory, you could have a terminal up and operating in 2017.”

Regarding projected jobs associated with the construction and operation of the export terminal, Callery made reference to three types of jobs: direct, induced, and indirect. During the construction phase of the project, approximately 895 direct jobs – in construction of the terminal, increased capacity on the Coos Bay rail line, and possibly improvements on portions of other rail lines in Oregon – are projected.

During the operation phase, 165 direct jobs – associated with operation of the terminal, the rail line, and marine services – are projected.

Induced jobs – jobs associated with companies providing services or supplies to the terminal or rail line – are projected at 236 for the construction phase and 59 for the operation phase. Indirect jobs – associated with overall economic activity, for example gas stations and restaurants – are projected at 302 during the construction phase and 61 during the operation phase.

Projected jobs would be located in Coos and Lane County, and statewide. Whether any of these jobs would be located in SE, Callery was not able to say.

Initially, one train with 90 -120 cars, 1¼  to 1½ miles long, would travel from the coal fields to the proposed bulk terminal and back again a few days a week. Eventually, this would increase to two trains six or seven days weekly. While the railroad used to transport the coal has not been determined, according to Callery, Union Pacific (UP) would be the likeliest carrier.

Aaron Hunt, Director of Corporate Relations and Media for Union Pacific, spoke from Roseville, California. “We currently operate about 17 trains per day in SE Portland,” he said, “and we do not anticipate a significant increase in number of trains,” should coal be among the commodities shipped through the neighborhood.

He addressed concerns over wait times at rail crossings by calculating that a mile to mile-and-a-half long train going 15 miles per hour occupies a crossing for four to six minutes.

“We are always looking at crossings. We know this is in the minds of people in the communities where we operate trains.”

As for who would pay for any upgrades to the rails, Hunt stated, “It will not be necessary to change rail infrastructure in SE Portland to transport coal, but if the community wanted to have a dialogue about changing grade crossings, UP would be a part of that conversation along with the City of Portland, and the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees grade crossings. There would have to be a dialogue about how those things would be funded.”

On the issue of coal dust, the UP spokesperson said, “Any coal movements that would be done by UP that would come through Portland, as far as we know today, would be coming from the Powder River Basin. We currently encourage our coal customers to mitigate with surfactants, polymers that form a crust on top of the coal and mitigate dust very substantially. Any coal shipped from the Powder River Basin would be treated with surfactants.”

“Derailment is certainly something we look at consistently,” Hunt pointed out. “Our derailment rate has been consistently dropping. It has decreased 32% since 2001.”

Asked for numbers of derailments, Hunt provided a link to the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis, which shows between 170 and 434 UP derailments each year from 2003 to the present, with 212 in the first seven months of 2012.

“This year we are investing 3.6 billion dollars in our infrastructure in support of our continued effort to minimize derailments and to offer excellent service to our customers,” Hunt stated, adding, “We don’t have data that coal as a commodity is different from any other commodity in terms of its safety record.”

As of this writing, five Union Pacific coal trains have derailed in the United States in 2012, one-third of 15 coal train derailments on all rail lines.

The Powder River Basin (PRB) in Wyoming and Montana is the largest coal-mining region in the United States and one of the largest deposits of coal in the world. Almost all of this coal is federally owned, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for leasing the coal to mining companies operating in the basin.

At this writing, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the price of Powder River Basin coal is $10.25 a ton. According to Beverly Gorny of the BLM Wyoming State Office of Communications, PRB coal has “historically been for steam coal for domestic electric generation throughout the United States. Wyoming Powder River Basin coal mines are not dependent on export coal sales for their continued operation.”

Here in Part 3, the last of our three-part series, experts from the Oregon coast, California, and Wyoming have expressed enthusiasm for jobs, confidence in safety, and neutrality toward proposed trains transporting coal through SE Portland.

In Part 2, experts voiced alarm over risks to health and the environment caused by coal dust and diesel emissions, and risks to safety caused by waits at rail crossings and derailments.

Neighbors along the tracks running through southeast Portland in part 1 were both fearful and hopeful, with fear outweighing hope by nearly two to one.



The author thanks readers of the Southeast Examiner for their attention to this complex and crucial matter facing their neighborhood, and encourages them to add their voices to this spirited conversation.

Coal Trains Part 3 – Experts Weigh In

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