A coal train traveling toward the Columbia River Gorge derailed north of Pasco, Washington, on July 2, spilling coal from 31 cars, the Los Angeles Times reported. The train was transporting coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to a coal export terminal in British Columbia. A small amount of coal is currently exported off the west coast of North America. Oregon and Washington are now threatened with six new coal export proposals, which together would require 30 full and 30 empty new coal trains everyday. This recent derailment may foreshadow additional problems if coal train frequency increases.
The derailment, which dumped over 6,000,000 pounds of coal, blocked the busy Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) track that leads to the Columbia River Gorge and Portland, forcing BNSF to reroute trains. The Tri-City Herald reported that the derailed train blocked a public street, preventing access to a grain elevator and a home. BNSF has not disclosed the cause of the derailment. Large clouds of toxic coal dust blew from the spill. The Seattle Times documented the potential coal train impact on the Puget Sound region.
Three derailments in three days
Coal trains suffered three major derailments in three days on July 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2012. In addition to the large BNSF coal crash near Pasco, Washington, a BNSF coal train derailed in Pendleton, Texas. Forty-three coal cars flipped off the tracks and spilled coal. Fortunately, no one was injured in the crash. The local news station provides video of the piled up coal cars.
On July 4th, a coal train derailed and collapsed a bridge in the Chicago suburbs, causing 38 cars to derail, spilling coal, blocking the Union Pacific rail line, and shutting down traffic. The Chicago Tribune reports that two people died; workers found a car beneath the coal train wreckage.
BNSF acknowledges that coal dust harms the stability of rail lines. Their website states:
BNSF has determined that coal dust poses a serious threat to the stability of the track structure and thus to the operational integrity of our lines in the Powder River Basin.
“These crashes serve as a stark reminder that more coal trains will cause more derailments,” stated Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “With the coal export proposals, our communities are threatened with 30 full coal trains everyday.”