Individual comment detail

Margolis, Jeffrey
Date: Jan. 18, 2014
Are you aware?:

At exactly 1:52 PM on Sunday January 12th 2014 a fairly normal size train, for the South Fork Valley tracks, but carrying coal exclusively, for the first time in history, came through the intersection of SR 9 and Potter Road in Van Zandt. About an hour earlier pelted by torrential rains this train, barely maintaining momentum, moved at a crawl over a spongy rail bed atop saturated farmlands six miles south in Acme WA. Traffic on SR 9 was reportedly delayed for five minutes north of Acme.

This might as well have been Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s second surrogate coal train since Sunday October 20, 2013. Alas, I, Co chair of Safeguard the Southfork have been on a fool’s errand since Thanksgiving trying to entice, with the cooperation of, Deputy Director of Whatcom County Emergency Services, Kent Catlin, BNSF’s spokesman, Gus Melonas, to reveal the nature of this initial extraordinary long freight train that inched its way down the South Fork Valley from Sumas, in Whatcom County Washington to Burlington, in Skagit county. We in SGSF, a Whatcom County environmental group concerned about Unit Trains heading through agrarian Whatcom County, potentially through Lynden and then on to Cherry Point, call it the “Farmland Route”. Now we can confirm that trains carrying coal are absolutely coming through the South Fork Valley on their way to British Columbia.

There is more to this story. Melonas, lead Public Affairs officer for BNSF’s Western District, responded to my queries. Replying by phone he assured me that the sort information we were seeking was proprietary and he would get back with the size of the, “October Train”. Sadly, over time his reluctance, even when approached by Catlin, to divulge any details in the following weeks after giving his word to cooperate, is disappointing and foreboding. As we drew closer to Christmas, we had no choice but to shrink our request, accepting his desire to sidestep details about speeds and intersection delays in hopes of minimally recognizing BNSF as a good neighbor… if they would only cite the length of the train! Warned by the wise about wasting time, but having done what Catlin recognized as due diligence, it is now obvious that BNSF deliberately is doing its utmost to conceal information from the public. This information could be vital to evaluating the environmental and transportation impacts of the Gateway Pacific Terminal on all of Whatcom and then on to Sedro Woolley and Burlington in Skagit County.

Melonas put two and two together and obviously realized that the “October Train” could legitimize, and make more probable than ever, the SGSF argument that a Unit Coal Train could and would use the Farmland Route. The SGSF position postulates that the downstream financial, environmental and social costs are so astronomical as to be the Achilles Heel of GPT. For some the case is now moot, for others it is mysterious or confusing.

Since the earliest mention of GPT and BNSF’s concurrent visit to the Bellingham City Club, BNSF has refused to acknowledge that they might use the Farmland Route in response to capacity challenges, emergencies or for returning Unit Coal Trains. But as the recent January 12th train illustrates; it is inevitable. Moreover numerous reports and industry recommendations throughout the past decade, along with the feasibility study for “The Washington Commerce Corridor” in 2003, all pointed to and advocated for the Farmland Route. Nevertheless BNSF continues to stonewall and deny the possibility of Unit Coal Trains being routed through rural Whatcom County to Cherry Point.

Talk about being caught in the act. Between possibly sending a Unit Train facsimile south and a normal train with a 100 tons per car north under adverse circumstances, a serendipitous feasibility experiment through the Farmland Route if there ever was one. Can there be any doubt Unit Coal Train impacts in eastern Whatcom County, especially with regard to the delivery of emergency services and highway redevelopment need to be evaluated?

Actually there is more than doubt about whether the Farmland Route matters.
It almost seems as if there is a concerted effort to steer discussion away from this reality. The Army Corp of Engineers, generally speaking prefers to focus on the GPT site and eschew transportation issues from the environmental assessment. Whatcom County seems willing to focus on transportation issues in Ferndale but has been casual about focusing on other sectors of the county. The Washington Department of Ecology has expressed an interest in examining some transportation impacts in some parts of the state.
Interestingly in it’s scoping comments, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission urged that transportation issues resultant from GPT need to be examined. All of these Agency positions lack the emphasis that will command the Co-Leads who are conducting the GPT environmental impact
analysis to study Farmland Route impacts. It is critical to a comprehensive
and wise understanding of GPT fallout.

As for BNSF and Melonas, they know full well as every citizen should, that there are absolutely no regulations, state or federal, that limit the amount of time a train may take to pass through an intersection. As such it is left to the taxpayers to suffer the consequences. Of course Whatcom County can say to GPT developers, you must anticipate our expense of providing for your benefits, otherwise, your application to build a terminal will be denied.