Thursday, March 1, 2012

Welcome to 1840

Tonight I attended an open forum in my little town of Sandpoint.  (Yes, I know.  I just told you all where I live.  I planned it that way.)

Before I go on, I just have to say one thing: it's kind of odd, this feeling of knowing that I'm older than some of the people who sat on the panel tonight. ;o)  And now, back to my regularly-scheduled post.

The forum addressed the machinations of various monied players to route between 5,000 and 8,580 additional open-top coal cars and 200-330 diesel engines along the rail routs that all funnel into Sandpoint.  Occupying the only natural break in the Rocky Mountains for hundreds of miles, we're the only viable option for moving coal from the Powder River Basin to proposed export facilities along the Pacific Northwest coast (in Oregon, Washington, and even British Columbia).  These players plan to sell this coal (coal so low quality and dirty it isn't marketable in the US) to countries in Asia and India . . . mostly to China, currently the world's largest coal consumer.  They are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on monolithic export facilities, untold millions on mining and transport over thousands and thousands of miles, moving millions on tons of coal to another continent.

People who hear about this, understandably, feel a few small points may prove problematic.

1. With the numbers provided so far, an additional 50-66 coal trains would funnel through Sandpoint.  Our town would have a train going through it every 12 minutes.  That means, with an ambitious 5-minute wait at a crossing, there would be only another seven minutes before the next train comes and ties up the road.  Emergency response units would have a 58% chance of getting through to the person in need.  In the case of house fires or heart attacks, that's stacking the odds against those in trouble, guaranteeing that many of the cardiac arrest calls will end in death, and fire fighters will lose precious minutes while lives and property are at stake.  One man in attendance shared his experiences in fire fighting and EMT service, and in those situations, waiting for a train will end up with unnecessary loss of life and/or property.

2.  The railroad's own figures say that each coal car loses about one pound of coal per mile.  That's 100-130 pounds of coal per train, per mile.  Multiply that by the low estimate of the number of additional trains coming through, and that's 6,500 pounds of coal per mile every twenty-four hours.  Three and a quarter TONS of coal dust.  Philadelphia in 1840 ain't got nuthin' on us, baby.

3. Diesel particulates (DM) happen to be horrifyingly dangerous.  Dangerous enough that 130 doctors in Washington stepped forward when news of this first scheme came out to speak out against it.  In Dr. James's words: "I've never known that many doctors to speak up about anything, let alone agree on it."  Since then, not a single one of them has dropped out . . . and thirty more have joined them.  Asthma, heart attacks, cardio pulmonary disease, stroke, learning disabilities and delays, growth retardation in children, the list goes on and on.  (I'll post it when I get the slides from tonight's presentation.)  These particulates can be as small as 2.5nm . . . and have a spongelike structure that allows them to absorb lots of other highly toxic, heavier compounds and carry them through the air and deep into the lungs, all the way down into the alveoli of those unfortunate enough to breathe that air.  Suddenly I see a method behind the odd fact that Violet has developed asthma over the time we've lived here by the tracks.

4.  Coal dust happens to be nearly as horrifyingly toxic.  This low-grade, dirty coal especially.  Coal carries with it a list of twenty-four heavy metals (including antimony, arsenic, lead and mercury), along with carcinogens and radioactive compounds.  Would you like glowing salad greens today, or the surprising new variety of lettuce with blue spots?

5.  These deep-pocketed coal purveyors won't be paying for maintenance or improvements to the rail lines they use.  (Don't ask me why . . . they didn't go into that part.)  It will largely rest on the taxpayers of the regions these trains go through.  Add to that the fact that this rail traffic brings absolutely no benefit to the communities it ravishes, and that paints a rather bleak picture.  (And even if it did bring something, new jobs, or tax revenue . . . how on earth could it be right, ethical, permissible, or admissible to sell a community's health and safety for that???)

6.  A study done by a federal alphabet soup agency (a three letter acronym having to do with transportation) showed that railroad crossings with more than 30 trains a day had a crazy-high number of accidents as opposed to crossings with fewer trains.  We're looking at 100-116 trains every 24 hours, crossing public and private roads in more than 100 places . . . ummmm . . . does anyone else see a problem with that?  Yeah.  Me too.

7.  Spokane (which would endure all of the same coal traffic Sandpoint might) already has the highest cancer rate in the state of Washington, which has the highest cancer rate in the nation.  Spokane's cancer rate is just under the CDC threshold for intervention . . . and while having the CDC involved would help give the community outcry considerable clout (telling these coal kings where they can put their product), a lot more people have to get cancer first . . . and I'm just not excited about that.  Remember, the real carcinogen here is diesel exhaust particulate, not coal dust.  So even covering the coal cars wouldn't help with this one.

8.  Property values around the tracks would plummet.  With the values here still reeling from the burst real estate bubble, that's a serious touchpoint around here.  And as I can tell you, personally, there are very few properties anywhere in the county that aren't within five miles of the tracks.  (That's the approximate radius for pollution.)

9. One of Sandpoint's mainstays is tourism.  Summer brings snowbirds back to roost on the lake, in town, and in the hills, hikers and just plain tourists who want to see one of the longest train trestle bridges in the US, or any of the other incredible sights here.  Winter brings skiiers and snowsports folks, as well as many others.  Touring isn't quite as fun when you spend half of your time on the road waiting for trains, or when the snow's gray.  (Remember, 130 pounds of coal dust per mile, per train.)

10.  Derailments will happen.  They happen here.  Thankfully we haven't had any hazmat derailments in more than a decade . . . but with such a monumental jump in traffic, all of it hazmat loads, coal trains will derail.  I have a good friend whose home looks out over the Pack River Delta, on the other side of the Sunnyside Peninsula from Sandpoint.  The trains would travel directly over the delta for a few miles there.  The tracks come from east of Clark Fork and Hope, travel along the Clark Fork River, across the delta, hug Lake Pend Orielle across the northern curve of shoreline, and then dip down into Sandpoint before crossing the lake and heading out to Spokane.  (The map says it better.)  Trains spend a whoooole lot of time skittering along near the drinking water supply for Sandpoint.  A coal spill into Lake Pend Orielle would be an unmitigated catastrophe.  Wildlife destroyed, municipal water poisoned, lake sport pulverized (fishing, boating, kayaking, swimming, all of it).  Hey honey, wanna go fishing and see what we can pull up?  Don't touch anything, though . . . we're already at triple the lead levels we should be, and those touches of arsenic really seem to bother me.  And a spill would be in addition to the possible 3.25 tons of coal dust settling into the lake each day.

Dang.  We wouldn't even need a spill.

11. Local farmers.  Sandpoint is beginning to really have a thriving local farming community that actually {gasp!} feeds some of our residents.  Liberally adding heavy-metals, carcinogens and radioactive compounds to the arable land usually tends to reduce an organic farmer's hopes for success, ya know?

There are more points . . . but I'll have to wait until I have the slides to share.  My tired brain is all tapped out for tonight.  Thanks so much for hanging in there with me this far.  I'll leave you with one simply, straightforward, even easy thing you can do.  Power Past Coal is a coalition organized to coordinate the outcry against this agressive, coercive, violent possibility.  Go to the Power Past Coal site, and sign their petition.  If you're local, click on the little Idaho under the big word "act" on the right side of the page, then choose your county after it automagically appears at the bottom of the box.  Enter your info, and you're done.  Even I, the privacy-paranoid and slightly reclusive mama signed it.

So, please.  If you live anywhere along the proposed route or export facility sites in Montana, Idaho, Oregon or Washington, go sign the petition.  Take those two minutes to help all our communities along the line secure some level of quality of life for their children.  Let us not allow money to push our precious towns and farms back into the filth and pollution common in 19th Century industrial towns.

And thank you for caring about all of this.

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