WIRT Report on Sandpoint Oil and Coal Train Traffic Public Forum


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Various north Idaho city, county, and state government elected and agency officials and two environmental organization representatives banned the public from several closed meetings during recent months, while they discussed the environmental and public health and safety threats and opportunities for resolution of increased coal and oil train traffic across the Panhandle [1-3].  In the wake of critical news stories denouncing this fiasco from Sandpoint to Boise, Idaho, and from Spokane, Washington, to Washington D.C., excluded, rightfully appalled citizens expressed regrets that participating government entities and environmental groups denied them access to these essential conversations about such crisis topics, even while public awareness has grown in response to fiery oil train derailments across North America during the 18 months since the tragic Lac Megantic disaster that incinerated 47 lives in July 2013.

Perhaps in embarrassment, the City of Sandpoint, Idaho, sponsored and hosted a community forum on north Idaho coal and oil train issues at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, January 14, 2015, in Sandpoint City Council Chambers at Sandpoint City Hall, 1123 Lake Street [4].  Sandpoint Mayor Carrie Logan called for this public meeting in mid-December, to provide an opportunity for citizens to hear current information about expanding coal and oil rail traffic and to discuss the risks, challenges, and possible solutions of community safety and wellbeing currently compromised by air, water, and noise pollution, crossing delays, economic impacts, and potential train derailments.

The city invited the public and local, state, and federal representatives, along with spokespersons of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Montana Rail Link (MRL), and Union Pacific (UP) railroads.  Event moderator Chris Bessler, owner and publisher of Sandpoint Magazine, offered an issue overview and introduced the eight citizen, city and county government, and railroad company panelists.  In order of appearance, Mayor Carrie Logan, citizen advocate Gary Payton, Jared Yost of the Sandpoint Mapping and GIS Department, Bob Howard of Bonner County Emergency Services, Gus Melonas and Ross Lane of BNSF, and Jim Lewis and Casey Calkin of MRL each gave approximately ten-minute presentations.  Anticipating a lively evening with good citizen turnout, the panel accepted written questions, comments, and concerns collected from the audience and asked by the moderator.  During the last 15 minutes of the forum, city and county residents approached the panel with their verbal queries and assertions.

Regional citizen participants packed the Sandpoint City Council Chambers to its 125-person room capacity during the oil and coal train forum [5, 6].  Another dozen folks listened from the hallway, while the city fire marshal and police also attended.  Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) filmed a video and photos and recorded the entire, almost three-hour meeting for the January 15, 2015 KRFP Evening Report news story Sandpoint Residents Learn About Oil Train Options [7-9].  Like the newscast, WIRT intends to air selected excerpts of the forum on WIRT’s upcoming Climate Justice Forum radio programs, broadcast on Monday evenings on KRFP.  The City of Sandpoint posted an audio file of the forum, along with a list of resources and contacts provided at the meeting, on its website [10, 11].

Based on direct observations, the January 14 Sandpoint oil and coal train forum seemed like a government and railroad attempt to regain authority over escalating public outrage about the inherent risks and ongoing pollution foisted by fossil fuel train shipments on rail line corridor residents.  In response to the citizen-accepted, standard government and corporate operating procedure of placating the audience by providing not entirely comprehensive or accurate information, WIRT yearns for greater community passion to actively oppose this oil, coal, and probable tar sands onslaught.  We experienced this desired resistance only in the number of citizen participants at the Wednesday evening meeting, suggesting the benefits of a second forum accommodating stronger, more direct public input, via verbal citizen comments and visual materials.

North Idaho activists who have been working to raise public interest in this issue for years are nonetheless grateful that Sandpoint area residents are awakening to the railroad dangers that confront them daily and nightly.  After all, the booming development and export of interior North American carbon resources crosses their paths at every turn.  Approximately six oil and coal unit trains, among 55 trains every 24 hours, each take six to ten minutes to pass through a half dozen at-grade, track/street crossings within Sandpoint city limits, together blocking other residential, business, and recreational interests six to nine hours every day.

But within the wider perspective of reckless fossil fuel development and resulting climate change, Sandpoint holds the dubious honor of a much more crucial distinction.  Recently involved in megaload protesting and monitoring activities in the Idaho Panhandle, a core WIRT activist attests that,

Sandpoint, Idaho, is the chokepoint for the dirty energy oligarchs’ plans.  Loaded oil and coal unit trains bound for the Cascadian coast, along with returning empties headed back to the Bakken and Powder River [extraction] sacrifice zones, all cross the Lake Pend Oreille [train] bridge on a single rail track.  We must all stand with the Sandpoint resistance!

[1] Wednesday Sandpoint Oil/Coal Train Forum & Other Events (January 12, 2015 Wild Idaho Rising Tide action alert)

[2] WIRT Newsletter: Recent Idaho & Montana Oil & Coal Train Issues (January 14, 2015 Wild Idaho Rising Tide newsletter)

[3] Oil and Coal Train Update from Wild Idaho Rising Tide (January 15, 2015 Earth First! Newswire)

[4] City of Sandpoint Media Release (December 16, 2014 City of Sandpoint)

[5] Oil, Coal Train Worries Pack Hearing (January 15, 2015 Bonner County Daily Bee)

[6] Officials Address Train Traffic Increase (January 15, 2015 Coeur d’Alene Press)

[7] Sandpoint Public Forum on Oil and Coal Train Traffic 1-14-15 (January 14, 2015 Wild Idaho Rising Tide video)

[8] Sandpoint Public Forum on Oil and Coal Train Traffic 1-14-15 (January 14, 2015 Wild Idaho Rising Tide photos)

[9] Sandpoint Residents Learn About Oil Train Options (January 15, 2015 KRFP Evening Report, between 11:10 and 4:27 LoFi)

[10] Forum on Coal and Oil Train Traffic (January 14, 2015 City of Sandpoint)

[11] Audio File of the Forum on Coal and Oil Train Traffic (January 14, 2015 City of Sandpoint)

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