WIRT Newsletter: Recent Idaho & Montana Oil & Coal Train Issues


Bakken shale oil trains in northern Idaho travel beside the Kootenai River, through downtown Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint, over and along Lake Pend Oreille, and adjacent to U.S. Highway 95, before heading west into Washington.  Within the nexus of Panhandle tracks carrying greater numbers of dangerous trains every month across crumbling bridges and the lake, residents truly wish to protect their lands, waters, and the future of their children and grandchildren.  They understand the toxic and transient nature of unsustainable fossil fuels among the life of this Earth, and some have been boycotting them at every opportunity for decades.  One derailment on a bridge or over the regional aquifer would ruin the drinking water of thousands of people.  Are the profits of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Montana Rail Link (MRL), and Union Pacific (UP) railroads so imperative that they would chance derailments and bridge collapses near rivers and lakes? [1]  As oil and gas companies scrape the bottom of the easily recoverable barrel to extract the largest possible revenues, they obviously are evading the burdensome infrastructure and operating costs associated with preliminary processing of tar sands and fracked crude.  Without these adequate precautions, Bakken crude oil contains extremely volatile constituents that ignite too readily to be safely transported in bulk.  But North Dakota regulators have only considered or required that crude be conditioned, instead of mandating the more thorough and expensive stabilization procedures and equipment that separate and remove volatile compounds prior to shipment, but that the oil industry has been resisting for years.

Through combinations of these factors, governments and oil and railroad corporations ensure that American citizens passively and endlessly bear (but not accept!) the physical and fiscal risks and costs of oil trains, while these industries and their pet politicians take all the profits.  Flammable oil and dusty coal are transported and stored on a regular basis within some of the largest population centers in U.S., mostly located around railroads.  A leak or spill of volatile Bakken oil constituents from a transfer pipe or railroad tank car could ignite and set the heavier compounds on fire and start an uncontrollable, days-long conflagration that no municipality has the experience or the gear to combat.  Are existing north Idaho politicians and environmental groups determined to safeguard local communities by insisting on prohibition of crude oil train shipments with highly volatile constituents?  The majority of conservation organizations advocate overdue removal from nationwide tracks of aging Department of Transportation (DOT)-111 tank cars – the “riskiest models on the rails for accidents and oil spills” – as demonstrated by a November 2014 trip to Washington, D.C. by Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper executive director Shannon Williamson and allied colleagues [2].  They also petitioned for other more rigorous oil train regulations during rulemaking sessions at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In early December 2014, the public interest environmental law organization Earthjustice, “on behalf of Sierra Club and ForestEthics, challenged the Department of Transportation’s denial in November of the groups’ petition for an immediate ban on the most hazardous DOT-111 rail tank cars carrying explosive Bakken crude oil” [3].  The legal action attests that this type of car, prone to punctures, spills, and fires during train accidents, represents two of every three tankers transporting oil throughout the U.S.  Asserting that it has sufficiently implemented measures to respond to the imminent hazards posed by these rail cars, by only issuing a safety advisory, the Department of Transportation faces growing legal opposition demanding further actions to protect communities susceptible to “bomb train” derailments, leaks, and explosions.

Lives will remain vulnerable until outspoken opponents of oil, coal, and tar sands together raise escalating, cooperating resistance to their transport, in any form or manner, past their homes and businesses.  The inherent dangers of Northwest fossil fuel passage persist, as apparent in the big rock slide that closed a main BNSF rail line in north Idaho, connecting Montana to Washington, and naturally shut down oil and coal trains for a couple days in late November 2014 [4].  Perhaps nature was sending a warning about not just these shipments but about an influx of Canada Pacific freight and tank cars (hauling tar sands oil?) recently seen by Sandpoint residents on local railroad stretches [5].  June 2014 protesters of four of five Montana megaload assembly plants also noticed some of these cars on the Montana High Line east of Glacier National Park, likely utilizing one of only a few international rail entrances into Idaho and Montana.

Upcoming Oil & Coal Train Challenges

The Sandpoint, Idaho area already suffers from both transient and stationary trains fully loaded with hazardous cargo like coal, oil, and tar sands.  Union Pacific has proposed closing the street at Eastgate Crossing, between Idaho Highway 200 and the Bonner Mall, “a highly utilized access point between the commercial and residential areas of Ponderay [6, 7].  While this maneuver may increase public safety, it would prolong response times of ambulance and fire emergency services by several critical minutes.  Concerned citizens and local businesses impacted by diminished highway access and storefront visibility distrust further division of the two sides of Ponderay and reduced public safety from Union Pacific’s subsequent “ability to stack trains…lingering in town while carrying possibly harmful or flammable cargo” [6].

With neighboring Washington almost a year into considering the problems of oil transports via rail and ship, rural “north Idaho governments will use a $36,000 federal grant to update their emergency preparedness plans, to address the growing number of oil trains rumbling through their communities” [8].  The Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai tribes, Bonner, Boundary, and Kootenai counties, and BNSF, MRL, and UP are all involved in efforts to safeguard critical community resources along the route of two to three 120-car oil trains daily passing city water intake facilities, public buildings, fish hatcheries, and other assets.  As the volume of predominantly BNSF oil-by-rail transports through critical watersheds and ecosystems, westbound for Washington coast refineries and ports, could triple over the next five years, grant partners are identifying the risks of hazardous materials derailments or spills and outlining effective action plans.  Railroad officials say they are training north Idaho emergency responders through spill response exercises, updating emergency response plans, and soon placing “trailers with containment booms, absorbent pads, and skimmers in both Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry” [8].  But locals question the federal grant’s requirements for public input and railroad company disclosure and cooperation.

Like Missoula and Whitefish, Montana city officials, Bonner County Commissioners and other elected city and county leaders are taking courageous stands, requesting the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to include local communities in its draft environmental impact statement (EIS) review of the Tongue River Railroad proposal [9].  The new, 83-mile rail line between the Otter Creek Mine and Ashland and Miles City in southeastern Montana could generate up to 14 trains per day through the Idaho Panhandle, hauling some of the mine’s estimated 1.3 billion tons of coal and 2.5 billion tons of resulting atmospheric carbon dioxide, when burned.  As part of the U.S. DOT that regulates aspects of rail expansion, the STB would consider coal train effects on the environment, health, safety, and well-being of area residents.  “The county commission is also calling for public hearings to be held in Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, East Hope, and other communities” [9].  The STB’s Office of Environmental Analysis expects to issue, and accept comments on, the draft Tongue River Railroad EIS this spring.  Regional Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) climate activists anticipate strong, informed community participation in both comments and hearings, supporting the bold initiative of north Idaho officials.

During summer 2014, workers killed and cleared hundreds of beautiful trees and everything around the railway along Idaho Highway 200 in Ponderay, to either widen the road or add another train track.  In late August, the public learned that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad plans to construct a second railroad bridge across scenic Lake Pend Oreille, near Sandpoint in beautiful, mountainous northern Idaho [10-12].  In addition to 2008 new steel pier and decking improvements of the current train trestle over the lake, the proposed, parallel, single-track, 4800-foot (3/4-mile) structure of concrete spans and steel pilings would alleviate the existing, “frequent choke point for BNSF and MRL” during heavy train traffic periods, compounded by the single-track bridge and 35-mile-per-hour speed limits in the area where BNSF and MRL main lines converge [10].  Speculatively completed by 2018, this expanding fossil fuel infrastructure would increase industry capacity to accommodate more oil tankers and coal cars through BNSF’s and MRL’s northern corridor that hosts “more than 50 trains already passing through Sandpoint every 24 hours” [11].

However, BNSF must obtain permits to build the bridge.  That process could prove difficult, considering the opposition some Sandpoint residents, and others in the region, have aimed against BNSF’s growing oil and coal business.  Disturbance of the lakebed and shoreline will likely attract oversight as well [10].

Like residents of La Crosse, Wisconsin, diligent Panhandle citizens should get involved in the public process for this project, and convince representatives of local, state, and all levels of government to demand a full environmental impact statement, as specified by federal laws and rules and initiated at the onset [13].  The federal Surface Transportation Board Office of Environmental Analysis could take the lead on necessary environmental studies, perhaps paid for by BNSF’s owner Warren Buffet.

Montana Train Pollution & Mishaps

Like in the humid, lakeside Sandpoint, Idaho area, where pungent, (railroad-released?) odors other than wood smoke often linger at night under cover of smoke and darkness, increasing numbers of coal and oil trains pollute the inversion-prone Missoula air shed.  Visitors to this Montana city are often astounded by the poor air quality, sometimes comparable to Los Angeles smog.  A climate activist filmed diesel clouds emanating on November 30, 2014, from idling train engines in the Missoula rail yard, across the street from a residential neighborhood [14].  If the U.S. holds a 200-year reserve of fossil fuels under climate-challenged skies, of which people each breathe 35 pounds per day, why are dirty energy corporations selling coal and oil to other countries?

Meanwhile, Montana Rail Link lines have endured two train collisions and derailments in as many months.  On November 13, two trains traveling in opposite directions clipped each other while clearing a Clark Fork River bridge near the mouth of the Blackfoot River, below the decommissioned, former Milltown Dam east of Missoula [15].  The crash derailed three engines and ten empty grain cars, hospitalized both engineers in one locomotive, and knocked out power for several frigid hours to about 1200 homes and businesses.  The grain car shells remained along the tracks among incident investigations and salvage work, when another collision derailed thirty empty, stationary tank cars, without spills or injuries in the Missoula rail yard, at about 4 am on December 16, 2014.  “A rail car loaded with company scrap metal made low-speed contact,…resulting in all 30 cars rolling on their sides, as designed” [16].  The loaded car did not derail, caused minimal equipment damage, and did not interrupt main line service.

Oregon & Washington Civil Disobedience

Since a few weeks before Spokane Rising Tide’s and WIRT’s mid-July 2014, Sandpoint “bomb train” protest and regional actions, until the hundreds-strong turnouts at Spokane and Olympia hearings on the Washington Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study in late October, always amazing Rising Tide and allied comrades of the Pacific Northwest staged at least five oil train track blockades in Anacortes, Everett, Portland (twice), and Seattle.  The Seattle Raging Grannies blocked the Lacey headquarter driveways of the state agency conducting the study, the Washington Department of Ecology.  In early December 2014, David Osborn of Portland Rising Tide and Rising Tide North America described the “transformative power of direct action” during these encounters to forever change the participants, observers, and

actions from protesting only within the limits of what is legal, to doing what is right; from doing what we are allowed to do, to what we have a responsibility to do; from appealing to others to make changes for us, to discovering our own agency to create those changes.  Such shifts constitute new ways of being… [17]

Citizen authority invigorated by direct action has also been increasingly hitting its mark, as Scott Parkin of Rising Tide North America concurred at about the same time.

All of this bold and effective organizing in the climate movements has created a crisis in the boardrooms of North America’s oil, gas, and coal companies…The capitalist economic model is hardwired to exist only at the cost of the climate, the people, and our wild places.  Industry’s bottom line is derived from draining the Earth of its natural resources and converting them into energy for profit.  Activists from British Columbia to Utah to Vermont and Maryland, fighting back and saying “Not One More Step” of fossil fuel expansion, embody a wrench in the gears of that economic model [18].

In solidarity with frontline communities of resistance and an international, volunteer, grassroots network of activists, Rising Tide collectives must not only confront the root causes of climate change (primarily fossil fuel perpetrators) by asserting direct actions, we must also, always promote locally organized solutions to the climate crisis.  Creating understanding is the first step of climate activism organizing.  So, in collaboration with Rising Tide and allied groups throughout the Canadian and American Northwest region, Rising Tide North America is printing 15,000 publications about fossil fuel terminals and opposition along the northern Pacific coast [19].

George Price, of Indian People’s Action in Montana, reminds all radicals that changing the world entails nurturing alternatives to the present culture of colonialist conquest:

We are not likely to end ecocide “working through the normal channels.”  We have to become people who cannot be bought or compromised – people who have [created] alternative economies [and societies] connected with Earth and all species…Then, when we raise our voices and bring our actions of opposition and resistance, we can also declare that the corporatocracy and its economy has nothing that we want and nothing that we need…Real revolution is hard work and includes some self-sacrifice.  But imagine the solidarity we could have with a movement made up of people who…all know that we actually have something better than what the ecocidal/suicidal consumer society has to offer! [20]

Yours for a better world…

[1] BNSF Hiring in Spokane, North Idaho (December 10, 2014 Spokesman-Review)

[2] Environmental, Train Issues Reach D.C. (November 15, 2014 Bonner County Daily Bee)

[3] Groups Bring New Legal Action for Federal Ban of Dangerous Oil Tank Rail Cars (December 2, 2014 ForestEthics)

[4] Idaho Rockslide Halts Passenger, Freight Trains (November 28, 2014 KHQ)

[5] Canada Pacific Railway Cars (November 16, 2014 Constance Albrecht facebook post)

[6] Crossing Plan Frustrates City, Business Owners (November 13, 2014 Bonner County Daily Bee)

[7] UP Seeks Eastgate Crossing’s Closure (October 8, 2014 Bonner County Daily Bee)

[8] North Idaho Oil Train Risks to be Assessed under Grant (December 18, 2014 Spokesman-Review)

[9] County Seeks Vote in Tongue River Proposal (January 1, 2015 Bonner County Daily Bee)

[10] BNSF Plans Second Bridge over Idaho Chokepoint (August 27, 2014 Railway Age)

[11] BNSF Mulls Second Railroad Bridge (August 28, 2014 Bonner County Daily Bee)

[12] BNSF Seeks Second Bridge at Sandpoint (September 17, 2014 Spokesman-Review)

[13] La Crosse Residents Demand Environmental Impact Statement for Train Track Expansion (January 8, 2015 National Public Radio)

[14] Diesel Cloud in the Missoula Rail Yard (December 3, 2014 Blue Skies Campaign video)

[15] Wreckage Cleared from Tracks East of Missoula; Trains Too Close as Neared Trestle (November 14, 2014 Missoulian)

[16] Montana Rail Link: Trains Collide, Tank Cars Derail in Missoula (December 16, 2014 Missoulian)

[17] Oil Train Blockades in the Pacific Northwest and the Transformative Power of Direct Action (December 1, 2014 Earth Island Journal)

[18] Why We Need a “No Compromise” Climate Movement (December 2, 2014 Counterpunch)

[19] Rising Tide Regional Climate Publication (Rising Tide North America KickStarter)

[20] We Are Not Likely to End Ecocide… (December 7, 2014 George Price facebook post)

3 thoughts on “WIRT Newsletter: Recent Idaho & Montana Oil & Coal Train Issues

  1. ​Wow, Helen, this is quite a wonderful and eloquent piece. You really know how to distill, quote, and footnote! I hope you will submit this piece to the local governments and state agencies. I will also suggest it to the guys who have revived the Sandpoint Reader.

    Are you going to be in Sandpoint tonight? Or will other local WIRT members be there? I’m going to the forum and will see how long I can sit.

    Yesterday, the Bonner County Daily Bee published another article on its front page about the meeting tonight. Unfortunately, I can’t find its online version and forward it to you. It added information to the city’s press release, made clear that this was about more than just Sandpoint, listed the “moderators,” including Gary Payton, and described how it would be run, i.e. submitted written questions to the moderators. It will be pretty controlled.

    I ran my own little experiment to try to inform folks and get them to this forum, using a facebook page called Sandpoint Rant and Rave, which I just discovered. The response was overwhelming and by turns idiotic and nasty – now I sort of hope some of these folks don’t show up! I’ve compiled it all in the attachment. I will probably write another response today.


    “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

  2. Pingback: WIRT Report on Sandpoint Oil and Coal Train Traffic Public Forum | Wild Idaho Rising Tide

  3. Pingback: Sandpoint Stops Oil Trains Week of Action 2015 | Wild Idaho Rising Tide

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