Coal trains continue to move through Acme after BNSF extends agreement

A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada.
A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Contrary to the railroad company’s earlier statements, BNSF Railway will run coal trains through the South Fork Valley at least through the end of November, a company spokesman said on Monday, Oct. 27.

BNSF officials had told Acme-area residents at a community meeting on Oct. 1 that they had “good news” for the valley: Empty coal trains that had been running day and night from Canada since the summer would be gone after Oct. 15. The trains had been rerouted to the Sumas line, which runs along Highway 9 through the east county, while the waterfront line through Bellingham, Ferndale and Blaine was being improved. Maintenance equipment was blocking the waterfront line for five or six hours a day, necessitating the use of the Sumas line for coal traffic, BNSF said.

Jeff Margolis, the owner of Everybody’s Store in Van Zandt, heard BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas speak reassuringly to some 100 residents on Oct. 1 about how the run of four to six coal trains per day would end in mid-October. Residents were angry about rattling windows, blaring horns in the middle of the night, and long delays at crossings.

Margolis said he didn’t think BNSF had broken a promise.

“(Melonas) said it would stop on Oct. 15,” said Margolis, co-founder of Safeguard the South Fork, an organization created to keep coal trains off the east-county line. “It did stop. It resumed Oct. 18. He didn’t make any promises, and we didn’t expect any promises.”

“That was the plan,” Melonas said, referring to putting the empty coal trains back on the waterfront line in mid-October. “We have extended the agreement (with Canadian rail lines) until the end of Nov. 30. We are discussing further, through December, at this point,” Melonas said.

After that, Melonas couldn’t say.

“(The Sumas line) has proven safe and efficient, and the line is capable of handling additional traffic,” Melonas said. “We will continue, as we do with all active lines, to study further roles.”

Coal traffic through the east county has been reduced to one to three trains per day, Melonas said. This was confirmed by Acme resident Kathie Maxey, who organized the Oct. 1 meeting.

“I would say we’ve gone from six or eight (including the regular, twice-daily local train) down to probably three or four,” Maxey said on Monday, Oct. 27. “I know the (coal trains) are still going. I don’t think that they’re going at night. I don’t hear them at night like we used to.”

Acme Fire Chief Elvin Kalsbeek, who spoke at the Oct. 1 meeting about long delays for emergency responders, said on Monday, Oct. 27, that there haven’t been any major problems since Oct. 15. Trains coming to a dead stop in the valley have caused delays at crossings of 10 or 15 minutes the past couple weeks, Kalsbeek said.

“That was nothing like before,” he said.

In the long run, Margolis said, a large coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point would push the limits of how much train traffic the South Fork Valley could handle.

What we have been maintaining all along is that this (Sumas line) is an integral part of (the Gateway Pacific Terminal),” Margolis said. The terminal, which if approved would export up to 48 million tons of coal a year beginning in 2019, would bring nine loaded coal trains per day to Cherry Point and send nine empty trains back to Montana and Wyoming. Citizens groups such as Communitywise Bellingham that have studied the impacts of the coal terminal on rail traffic have concluded the empties would need to use the Sumas line to prevent a major backup on the Bellingham line.

“You’re going to have something that looks like south Seattle” in the South Fork Valley, Margolis said. “You’re going to have this huge industrial potential unfold because of the increased rail traffic.”