The Eugene City Council was right to delay a vote Monday on whether to oppose the high-volume movement of coal by train from Montana and Wyoming through Eugene to the Port of Coos Bay for shipment to Asian markets.
An issue of such significance, one that poses an array of environmental and logistical problems, merits serious consideration by councilors who so far have not had that discussion.
But once the talking is done, it’s hard to imagine how any councilor could do anything but vote to put Eugene on record as opposing the industrial-scale movement of coal by slow-moving trains, some up to 1 and a 1/2 miles long, through the city.
Global firms such as Ambre Energy Ltd. and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners are seeking approval to build Northwest coal shipping terminals, including one in Coos Bay. The projects involve moving massive amounts of coal in open-top rail cars from Montana’s and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to Spokane and then to ports throughout the Northwest.
If the Coos Bay terminal is approved, coal cars would travel from Portland into Lane County, switch onto the Coos Bay Rail Link in Eugene and travel west toward Florence and then south.
Project supporters insist the shipments would cause little disruption. That’s like arguing that a person with a massive intestinal tapeworm will barely notice the intruder’s presence.
Councilors should consider how the shipments would force delays at rail crossings in the city, with businesses, housing and emergency services scattered on either side. At 25 mph, a 11/2-mile-long train takes 3.6 minutes to pass. At 10 mph, the limit through congested areas, traffic would be delayed by nine minutes.
As for noise, councilors should bring air horns to the next meeting and let rip with two blasts, a short and a long — the required warnings at street level crossings. Logging chains might help replicate the clanging from jostling rail cars.
Unless improvements are made to existing rail lines, including longer sidings that can divert coal trains so passenger and freight trains can pass, there would be lengthy delays to existing rail traffic.
Then there’s the disturbing issue of coal dust pollution. Coal trains can lose up to 3 percent of their loads in dust blowing from cars, potentially damaging the health of residents and the productivity of local farms, and degrading the overall quality of life.
Supporters note that railroads have a new rule requiring mines to spray loads with a surfactant that limits dust drift, but the operative word here is “limit,” not eliminate.
Earlier this year, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wisely requested a comprehensive federal review of the coal-export proposals. That request upset project supporters who argue that coal can play a critical role in the Northwest’s economic recovery by generating jobs and tax revenues.
But Eugene would receive little economic benefit to offset the disruption and damage that coal would bring. It’s easier to understand why Coos Bay-area officials would welcome the new jobs and economic boost that a coal export terminal would provide.
But Eugene’s coal choice is a no-brainer, even without factoring in this city’s and state’s commitment to reducing the greenhouses gases that are emitted in coal burning and that contribute to global warming. Council members should vote next week to oppose rail shipments of coal through their community.