Coal trains still running through South Fork Valley

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

What was supposed to be a temporary detour of empty coal trains from Bellingham to the South Fork Valley will continue at least until Jan. 15 and maybe much longer.

For the first time, officials at BNSF Railway said they were considering a “long-term” deal with Canadian railroad companies to continue running the empty coal trains on the tracks along Highway 9, from Sumas to the South Fork.

“We’ve agreed continuing to detour the empty coal traffic until Jan. 15,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said on Friday, Dec. 12. “We are discussing with the parties developing a long-term, additional plan; however, we have not come to an agreement.”

Empty coal trains, leaving Canadian export terminals and returning to Montana or Wyoming mines, have been coming through the valley instead of Bellingham since the summer. The Bellingham tracks were undergoing an upgrade that blocked that route for five or six hours a day, prompting BNSF to take some of the traffic off that line.

Both the Bellingham and South Fork lines could be in play if a proposed coal terminal is built at Cherry Point. Gateway Pacific Terminal, with a capacity to ship 48 million tons of coal a year, would add up to nine loaded trains and nine empties a day to Whatcom County tracks.

The co-founder of a South Fork Valley group concerned about train traffic said the implications of BNSF’s long-term thinking for the valley extend beyond coal trains to another cargo of concern: oil.

“Since there’s such a tremendous desire even on the part of environmental groups to do something about the oil trains, and in particular to reroute them out of urban areas ... any discussion of coal trains today through the South Fork Valley ought to awaken people to the potential of oil trains,” said Jeff Margolis, co-founder of Safeguard the South Fork and owner of Everybody’s Store in Van Zandt.

Melonas said on Tuesday, Dec. 16, that BNSF had no plans for running oil trains through the valley.

Generally, the railroad company does not give advance notice of its plans. BNSF officials maintain they are always evaluating how their lines are used in order to improve efficiency.

Before the coal trains started coming through the valley, residents had grown accustomed to two local trains a day. Now, three to six empty coal trains go by daily, Margolis said. Residents complained to BNSF officials at a meeting Oct. 1 in Acme about losing sleep, and emergency vehicles and other traffic getting blocked by the additional trains.

Concerns have eased in the months since, said Margolis and Acme Fire Chief Elvin Kalsbeek.

The trains are moving through the valley faster than they were initially, probably owing to recent improvements to the tracks, Kalsbeek said in an interview on Monday, Dec. 15.

“That eliminates the big, long waits we were having before,” he said. Kalsbeek said he had heard of trains blocking crossings for a half hour, “but as far as emergency vehicles, it hasn’t been a problem — it could be.”

Members of Safeguard the South Fork take the long view of the impacts of train traffic on their valley. They are concerned the agricultural corridor is susceptible to development, and increased train traffic could be the catalyst for that.

“These trains come with heavy impacts on rural communities,” Safeguard the South Fork co-founder Nicole Brown said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “Not only are they loud and long — waking up households and barnyards throughout the night — but they also come without limits, which means a high probability of property destruction and taxpayer-funded infrastructure that will forever transform eastern Whatcom County.”