In a bid to eliminate coal dust, BNSF Railway will start spraying a second coating of sealant on coal cars in Pasco before they enter the windy gorge, a rail official said last week. Andrew Johnsen, assistant vice president of state government affairs for BNSF, which operates on the Washington side of the gorge, told the gorge commission Sept. 9 the railway would do whatever was needed to eliminate coal dust.
“If there’s a coal dust issue, we’re gonna solve it,” he said. Commenters have told the gorge commission of being pelted with chunks of coal from passing trains, and others say coal sediment is visible along the shores of the Columbia River.
“We feel that has virtually eliminated coal dust,” Johnsen said of the second spray. “It is far and away certainly the most robust protection for coal dust that anybody has pursued.”
Gorge Commissioner Janet Wainwright, a Washington governor’s appointee, asked if the Pasco spray station was already operational. Johnsen said it would be online in December.
The rail company has an interest in eliminating the coal dust, he said. “It’s fundamental to us to keep the product in the cars.”
BNSF and Union Pacific spokesmen were invited to speak to the commission, which has issued a resolution opposing new coal and oil terminals in the region.
Increased rail traffic carrying coal and oil has drawn opposition from citizens and local governments in Oregon and Washington.
Johnsen said he appreciates the stance the stance taken against rail transports of coal and oil, but noted that “sometimes it feels like the conversation is a little one-sided.”
He said the rail industry has been “keeping its head down,” but is now making an effort to be part of the discussion. Both rail spokesmen described their work around rail and public safety, their extensive infrastructure, their fuel-efficiency and low emissions, and their large role in the economy.
Johnsen said his company far exceeds federal safety standards; it checks rail twice as often as required, for example.
Johnsen said coal dust near mines was causing derailments, so rail companies forced coal companies to contour loads, making them more aerodynamic, and spray a surfactant “like hair spray to lock in the load.”
Wainwright said Europe uses covered cars to haul coal, and asked if that was being considered here. Johnsen said, “I know we’ve looked at all different ways of addressing these issues.”
Brock Nelson, director of public affairs and corporate relations for Union Pacific, said covered cars are “something the industry, the shippers, they’re looking at that.”
Loading and unloading the cars when they’re covered is a consideration, and “making it cost effective is a little more complex.”
No coal is currently going along the Oregon side of the gorge, Nelson said.
Johnsoetwo coal trains a day for the last two and a half decades. It’s been very steady.”
But the potential construction of three new coal terminals in the region would change that. It could increase to nine trains a day if a new terminal in Bellingham is permitted and at maximum capacity, he said.
While the gorge has been seen as a main route though Washington from coal and oil fields in the interior of the country to shipping terminals on the West Coast, Johnsen said grain trains — which also have a heavy payload like coal or oil — are able to go over Stevenson and Stampede passes by adding a second locomotive.
Both spokesmen spoke of the extensive, free training they’ve given area emergency responders to respond to derailments.
They also explained that they are required to accept business from companies that have their product in cars that meet federal safety standards. It’s called a federal common carrier obligation.
But BNSF has pushed the issue by issuing a request for proposals for tank car makers to build a “next generation tank car” to boost safety.
Ryan Rittenhouse, with Friends of the Columbia Gorge, expressed concerns about oil transports, particularly Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.
That oil has been involved in five derailments and explosions since mid-2013, including one in Canada that killed 47 people.
“The product itself is not safe to transport. It doesn’t matter what you transport it in,” he said. Two of the explosions happened in a type of car that meets the latest federal safety standards, he said.
A study by the Wall Street Journal concluded Bakken crude is more explosive than typical crude oil, though a company that is proposing an oil terminal in Vancouver that would accept Bakken crude disagrees with those results.
Johnsen said that even though the fatal crash in Quebec was not on BNSF lines, it still changed company policy as a result. It lowered train speeds, increased track inspections and upgraded braking systems.
Nelson said Union Pacific is not hauling Bakken crude through Oregon or Washington, since it doesn’t have track originating in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.
The oil it moves, usually in a few cars per trainload, originates in Canada and Utah, and represents just one percent of all freight hauled in Oregon.
Johnsen said coal makes up 22 percent of product it hauls nationwide, down from 23 percent of all product in 2006.
Oil is a much smaller proportion, at just 1 percent in 2006, but by 2013 was 5 percent, Johnsen said.
Most oil is moved through pipelines, but as production exceeds pipeline capacity, more oil is being hauled by rail.
Johnsen said 14 to 19 trains carrying crude oil go each week on the Washington side. Even if that doubled, he said, it would only be a small percent of all trains.
Gorge Commissioner and former Congressman Don Bonker, a Washington governor’s appointee, asked about a projected “huge increase” in coal and oil transports. Both spokesmen said it was impossible to project because it hinged on whether proposed terminals were given the go-ahead to build. Three coal terminals are awaiting approval.
Johnsen said BNSF has a 99.997 percent safety record, and has a wide range of safety measures in place, including acoustic bearing detectors, which microphonically identify and evaluate defects in roller bearings.
He said 2013 was the safest year in railroad history in the United States.
Johnsen and Nelson both spoke of extensive training the railways offer to area emergency responders, but Johnsen said his rail line needed to do a better job of bringing training to small volunteer fire departments that can’t send their personnel to trainings.
Gorge Commissioner Gorham Blaine, representing Hood River County, said it is not just a matter of training, but having adequate personnel, money and equipment to respond to any derailment.
While Johnsen said the railroad has pre-positioned equipment and personnel to respond to derailments, Gorge Commissioner Bowen Blair, an Oregon governor’s appointee, said he understands those assets are kept in Vancouver and Wishram.
“Are you confident it’s a sufficient amount to respond to a significant derailment?” Blair asked.
Nelson said, “That’s difficult to answer…It’s something we’re looking at. It is a robust conversation going on right now.”
Nelson said both railroads have mutual aid agreements with each other, and both will respond with their assets to a derailment.
Johnsen said when a derailment happens, “no one feels it more than the railroad, because it’s our employees” who are involved.
Nelson said anyone who thinks the rail line is not concerned about safety would have their minds changed if they sat in on one of their