The derailment of a coal train headed from Wyoming to British Columbia reinforces worries about plans for more coal trains from Wyoming and Montana to proposed new coal terminals in the Northwest, including one in Whatcom County.

Share story

PASCO — A coal train that derailed and spilled 31 cars of the black, dusty fuel caused little more than a big mess and a day’s delay in rail traffic in the Eastern Washington town of Mesa, but opponents of increased coal shipments through the Northwest say it’s an example of a serious risk.

No one was injured and no buildings damaged Monday evening when the train derailed, said Franklin County sheriff’s Lt. Ronelle Nelson.

About 50 workers using heavy equipment worked through the night to clear the BNSF Railway track, said spokesman Gus Melonas.

They were able to put one car back on the track, but 30 were too badly damaged. Those cars were pushed aside and will have to be cut up and removed in a salvage operation, Melonas said.

About 30 trains a day roll through the area, 20 miles north of the Tri-Cities. About four a day are coal trains, the state has said.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation.

The 125-car train with four locomotives was carrying coal from the Powder Basin in Wyoming to an export terminal at Delta, B.C.

With a growing demand for coal in Asia, there are a half-dozen proposals for new coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon. They are at Cherry Point, Whatcom County; Longview; and Port of Grays Harbor in Washington, as well as Coos Bay in Oregon and two sites on the Columbia River.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to thoroughly review cumulative impacts of exporting large amounts of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.

Environmental groups oppose the shipments.

They cite congestion and dust pollution and say regulators also should consider the effect on climate change from burning North American coal in Asia.

“As more trains come through, the risks of accidents go up,” said Shannon Wright, executive director with Communitywise Bellingham, a group that wants studies of the local impacts of a proposed coal-export terminal at Cherry Point.

Derailments are a serious risk, said Krista Collard, with the Sierra Club’s Northwest Beyond Coal Campaign.

“This is a perfect example of why,” she said. “We’ve been calling for the corps to do a full evaluation of all six proposals from mine to rail and port to plant in Asia.”