The coal industry is pushing to build some massive new export terminals in Washington and Oregon, in order to sell heaps of the stuff—100 million tons a year—to China. Doing so would also mean building additional rail for coal trains to transport the goods from mines in the Midwest, and a serious uptick in freight traffic throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Which would mean more congestion, more development in wilderness areas, and, inevitably, more accidents. Environmentalists are pointing to the three serious coal train derailments that occurred in just the last week as evidence that increasing freight traffic poses a threat to the environment, the local economy, and public safety. One of those derailments took place in Chicago, where the errant train demolished a bridge and killed two people driving through the tunnel underneath it.
And the truth is, derailments happen quite frequently, though most often to less catastrophic effect. From a report in E&E: "The Federal Railroad Administration says there were 389 train derailments between January and April this year, compared to more than 500 during the same period last year. There were almost 1,500 derailments in all of 2011." (my emphasis)
That works out to four derailments every day. And when coal trains derail, they not only pose a danger to infrastructure or passersby, but to rivers and the natural environment.
Brett VandenHeuvel, the executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, told E&D that "We have heavily used rail running right down the side of the Columbia River through dozens of communities. It's important for our economy to keep those goods moving, and coal trains can threaten to, not only slow down the rail and vehicle traffic, but also can immediately threaten the river and our communities with derailment."
Obviously, coal train derailments shouldn't be taken lightly, but they'll never be as catastrophic, as difficult to clean up, or as viscerally communicative to the public as an oil spill. The big motivation to oppose the project will always stem from the simple fact that opening up another huge fossil fuel-rich artery to the global marketplace would spell trouble for the climate. That coal should stay buried.