Good Friends and Neighbors:  What $54 Million Doesn’t Buy, Part 2

Not content with causing massive inconvenience, BNSF is now literally dumping on county residents.

Not content with causing massive inconvenience, BNSF is now literally dumping on county residents.

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On Friday August 15, we published the first installment of the continuing saga of the communications snafus with BNSF’s rail crossing upgrades. The work is part of a $54 million project funded by the Wash. Dep't of Transportation, ostensibly to upgrade the coastal rail line for faster passenger trains. That article describes residents stranded without egress, the Sheriff frustrated with BNSF’s refusal to communicate with him, a fire chief’s efforts to provide standby emergency vehicles, and no notice to residents or emergency responders when work is cancelled. This story picks up where that one left off.

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Last Friday, some time after my first article appeared about BNSF and the road closures, one of their crews dumped a train carload of gravel around Klipsun Road, off Chuckanut Drive, in such a way that some of it obliterated a resident’s trail, but much of it landed in a stormwater ditch feeding into the Bay. Some found its way into a small boat docked there according to residents’ email reports. 

Lee First, the Pollution Prevention Specialist for the North Sound Baykeeper Team at RE Sources responded Monday the 18th after notification by a resident, to gather information and take pictures.

“What I noticed first was that the engine used to pull the [gravel gondolas] was sitting there idling, and those tracks are right by homes, so those diesel emissions were just pouring onto residents’ decks,” First told me in a phone interview today.

According to a resident with whom I spoke, the engine sat idling near homes for most of the day Monday.

First filed an Environmental Incident Report (ERT) with the state Dep’t of Ecology later in the day Monday, reporting a spill at least 50’ long.

Ecology’s Kurt Baumgarten, a Water Quality Inspector, contacted First today, she said, concerned with whether the gravel was dirty and polluting the Bay.  He told First he will investigate that, and whether BNSF was required to have a section 404 permit and, if so, whether they had obtained one. Such a permit, issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act, is generally required for wetlands fill, which BNSF is doing, whether inadvertently or not.

Apparently, BNSF just likes dumping things into water. In February, King 5 News reported on creosote leaching into salmon-bearing streams near Van Zandt. That time, BNSF crews had dumped thousands of freshly-treated replacement ties for the farmland rail line beside the tracks, without consideration of the fact that many were rolling into streams which feed into the Nooksack River (see photo, below).

Ken Kaliher, a Chuckanut area resident, laments that if this is how BNSF operates when they should be wooing us, before the county makes a final determination about whether to grant permits for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, how will they operate if they have their permits when they need to build longer sidings to accommodate the increased rail traffic?

Ken is correct to worry. As reported in February, BNSF is responsible for 17 total toxic sites awaiting cleanup around the state, of which 3 are ranked as the highest priority by the Dep't of Ecology (in Auburn, Shelton, and Kelso).

Since publication of the first article about the Cove Road/Yacht Club Road construction, an area resident there was able to get a name of a BNSF contact with responsibility for the current projects on the coastal route. Given that representatives for both WSDOT and BNSF refused to share that information with me for my first story, I am only too happy to publish that information here:

Project Name:  NW Area Construction
BNSF Project Engineer:  Zach Dombrow
Address:  2454 Occidental Ave. South, Seattle, WA 98134
Phone:  206-625-6491

Unfortunately, the saga continues for the Chuckanut area residents who are stranded in their neighborhoods when construction occurs at intersections with the railroad right-of-way. The good news is that for the first time, BNSF or some subcontractor is sending advisories to local press about future road closures. The bad news is that there are advisories, because the same residents who have been dealing with inconvenience for weeks are the ones currently impacted.

In the advisory published Aug. 18, BNSF announced they would close access to Yacht Club Road, also cutting off access to Chuckanut Shore Road, Tuesday, Aug. 19, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 20, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Thursday, Aug. 21, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. [sic].

On the 19th, the Herald published an announcement that BNSF will close Cove Road,  also blocking access to Wildcat Cove boat launch and Pleasant Bay Road, Thursday, Aug. 21, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. [sic again].

About Terry Wechsler

Citizen Journalist • Member since May 19, 2013

Comments by Readers

Randy Petty

Aug 21, 2014

We’re living along Portal Way in Ferndale while our house is being built elsewhere and we’ve noticed the trains running 24/7 just West of Interstate 5.  They seem to be busiest at night, but that may just be when we notice them most.  It made me think of airline operations at night.  Quite often flights are curtailed at night due to noise impacts on the surrounding community.  Why wouldn’t the same concept apply to railroads? 

Unfortunately one solution that comes to mind regarding the blowing of train horns near intersections would put motorists at greater risk—that would be to eliminate the horns where crossing arms automatically come down.

Much of the problem is the fault of city/county governments where they’ve allowed residential construction near the rail lines.  Or you could simply throw it in the laps of renters/home buyers who knowingly moved into such areas.

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Terry Wechsler

Aug 21, 2014

Randy, if you think the public is at fault for “moving to the nuisance,” what is your solution? The blast radius for a crude train is 1/2 mile. The noise travels a mile. Taylor Shellfish should be relocated. Downtown Mt. Vernon and Bellingham would have to be relocated, just as an example. Almost all of Fairhaven and South Hill in Bellingham…. Where would you have the hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses just in Whatcom County go, because everything within a half mile of the coast is impacted. Then there’s the inland route, running through all our prime agricultural lands. It was never intended for significant freight traffic, but now there are 4-6 empty coal trains returning from Westshore Terminals, through the Sumas Pass. Was Whatcom County wrong to allow farming in the South Fork Valley because there’s been a rail line there?  Where would you have us grow our food?

The reality is that we have rail infrastructure built for a mid-20th century regional economy and transportation needs, and the fossil fuel industry, hell bent on exporting as many of our nation’s resources as possible to foreign markets sees us as an inconvenience, standing between them and fast cash. They have overwhelmed capacity on the rail lines, pushing out Amtrak and farm commodities trying to get to our grain ports. Even if we had room to double track and add enough sidings so all commodities could move freely, is that where you want to live, in a fossil fuel corridor? Because that’s all we are to these people.

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Terry Wechsler

Aug 21, 2014

Randy, this editorial just appeared in the Billings Gazette today. Should Billings not have been built because the railroad was already there? Spokane? Seattle? This editorial is not unique. Throughout the west, towns impacted by trains transporting fossil fuels are overwhelmed with traffic impacts and the need to change grade at crossings, with no state or federal dollars to assist them. BNSF’s contribution is limited to 5% because, well, shoot, we shouldn’t have built near the tracks if we didn’t want the impacts.

http://billingsgazette.com/news/opinion/editorial/gazette-opinion/gazette-opinion-do-something-about-the-rail-traffic-and-our/article_41b82ae1-be2c-58ba-881b-4cc559af1193.html#ixzz3B2K98Y5B

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Randy Petty

Aug 21, 2014

Terry, obviously you’ve given this a lot more thought than I have.  I really was only pointing out how airlines have to curtail operations at night and railroads don’t.  As far as people choosing where to live, that choice is still there unless you can’t move out of the impacted area, can’t sell your house, can’t afford to move, etc etc.  The prior existence of a railroad line or airport rarely trumps public opinion in the vicinity, even if the railroad/airport was there for decades prior to housing.

I’m certainly not here to defend these corporations.

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Walter Haugen

Aug 21, 2014

I live about 3 miles from downtown Ferndale and this is far enough away that the whistle-blowing in the night is romantic. However, if it goes away because of concern for residents near the tracks, I certainly won’t mind. On this side of the Cascades, we live in a highly populated and highly polluted area. Simply saying “it could be worse” is no counterargument. Likewise for the “first user” argument. Don’t forget that the railroads got huge land grants and subsidies for building their profit-making enterprises. Many of them also engaged in highly questionable practices. Some still do. Putting more restrictions on railroads so that we can preserve the environment and make co-existence with human needs is certainly not asking too much. Really, what is more important - making large profits or caring for people and the environment?

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Abe Jacobson

Aug 21, 2014

Thanks for this informative reporting.

The worst thing about cigarettes isn’t that they yellow a smoker’s teeth. And the worst thing about coal use isn’t the transport-related ill effects. Rather, the fundamental problem with exploiting coal’s still untapped reserves is that it’s not carbon we can use and still have a surviving ecosystem.

My one trepidation with a focus on the rail-transport side of the coal-port issue is that we might end up setting the bar rather low for BNSF and GPT. All they have to do to avoid ticking off Bellingham, based on rail-transport problems alone, is to entirely forswear using the main line along the coast. Then our Bellingham neighborhoods would be free of the additional coal dust, diesel fumes, noise, and at-grade-crossing blockages. GPT could still in that scenario have the coal schlepped either via the South Fork to Sumas, or via Canada to Sumas. And the truly existential problem of the GPT project would be undiminished.

I don’t think we should just frame the GPT problem in terms of Bellingham’s problems. The overall, truly existential problem of GPT is that this coal is one of the worst carbon fuels, which must remain in the ground if the planet is to avoid a major CO2-induced extinction.

I realize that you share this view, so this is not a scold but just a reminder of the huge gravity of what’s at stake. Perhaps each and every expose of the transport-related ill effects of coal export should also note that this transport problem, however bad, pales compared to the CO2.

Abe Jacobson
Bellingham

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Walter Haugen

Aug 22, 2014

NYT article Friday, August 22nd.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/22/business/energy-environment/chinas-effort-to-produce-natural-gas-falls-far-short.html?nlid=45996748&src=recpb

China is trying to follow the lead of the US and reduce their consumption of coal by replacing some of their energy needs with natural gas. Although this has been hyped quite a bit, the reality is that shale gas and coal field gas will contribute only 1% each to China’s energy needs by 2020. This means China has to use their default solution: outsource coal plants to rural areas so the cities aren’t choking. This is costly and the docility of the rural people is not a given. The most cost effective alternative? Use their own coal reserves in the interior of the country and build the infrastructure to send electric power to the coastal cities. This will pencil out at a lower cost than building coal plants on the coast and subjecting urban residents to more coal pollution.

The bottom line? IF a coal terminal is built at Cherry Point, the probability is that China will just be using their own coal by that time and the terminal will not be needed. The environment at Cherry Point will be destroyed, the pitiful number of jobs constructing the terminal will be gone, and the taxpayers will be on the hook. BNSF will have parlayed this kerfluffle into new subsidized rail lines and BP will pick up the now-useless terminal for pennies on the dollar.

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John Palmer

Aug 22, 2014

I’m north of town.  But we keep hearing concern about BNSF building a siding.  Does everyone realize that they have already started building a siding that runs from Ferndale city limits to Bellingham city limits?  The survey is done and the siding switch is sitting where Rural Ave crosses the railroad tracks right now. 

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Terry Wechsler

Aug 22, 2014

Wow, John, that is news! We need to find out about that.

Abe, I completely understand what you’re saying. The point of my articles isn’t that if they routed the coal elsewhere, Bellingham wouldn’t feel the impacts, because it’s always been the fact that the coal would run through the county on one of the two lines, and BNSF now admits what Safeguard the South Fork has always known—they will almost certainly run the loaded trains up the coastal route, and the empties down the farmland route.

The issue is the utter disdain these corporations have for us: our convenience, our safety, our health, our security .... My only message at the moment is folks need to appreciate the arrogance of these corporations who claim to want to bring us prosperity, when the reality is that we will bear enormous direct local impacts, and fund a significant proportion of their infrastructure needs.

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Barbara Perry

Aug 25, 2014

Terry,  I really appreciate the work you’ve done educating readers.  Ditto to the commentators.  My question is how do we get through to the unaware who do not see these reports or understand the horrible problem. Your work definitely helps.  I am wondering if catch phrases would help—like Tea Party.  The name has a good connotation even though it’s a lie.  Instead of saying corporations (I do know some good corporations like my neighbor or Paul Newman’s family products)  how about referring to them as the GPP—Greedy Power People or MPP _—Murdering Power People or DPP—Destructive Power People or does anyone else have an idea?  It has to be simple and good enough for the many ignorant/uneducated people to remember.

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