When Coal Comes To Town: Western Communities Brace For Coal Export Explosion

BILLINGS, MONTANA — Not so long ago, the two warehouse district streets that parallel the railroad tracks running through Montana’s biggest city were, in the description of a local architecture firm, “seedy and dangerous, highlighted by saloons, gambling, fighting, and regular police traffic.”

Today, Minnesota Avenue and Montana Avenue are the heart of a small but thriving retail, entertainment and residential loft district, part of a spreading urban transformation that has brought new vitality to Billings — a revitalization that some residents fear may be in jeopardy as coal mines operating in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana could in the near future begin shipping massive quantities of coal to export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

Though their communities may differ greatly, the coal industry’s drive to breathe new life into a struggling economic sector is uniting activists and residents alike — from ranchers in the West, to small towns like Livingston, Sheridan, and Billings, to the cities in Washington and Oregon facing the possible construction of large coal export facilities.

Founded as a railroad town in 1882 — it is named for the then-head of the Northern Pacific — Billings has long dealt with freight trains rumbling through the heart of their city on tracks that separate the north and south sides. But people here worry that a dramatic increase in the number of trains moving through the center of the city will bring an unacceptable level of congestion, potential health impacts from diesel fumes and coal dust blowing off the open cars, and setbacks to the urban renaissance currently underway.


Those kinds of concerns are mirrored in many communities across the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest, which are in the cross hairs of a possibly huge jump in coal train traffic that could significantly affect community life.

Freight trains, including coal carriers a mile and a quarter long, delay auto traffic on heavily-traveled 27th Street in Billings for seven or eight minutes. During peak travel times those lines of waiting traffic can be several blocks long, according to Billings residents, and can delay access to the city’s hospitals for residents on the south side. And it’s not just traffic that is raising concerns: Dr. Robert Merchant, a Billings pulmonologist, told The Daily Climate, that he fears the dust, diesel fumes and noise will adversely affect the health of city residents. “A marked increase in coal trains will markedly impact the health of my patients,” he said. “I need to keep them out of the hospital.”

Over the past few years, six new West Coast coal export terminals have been proposed to move U.S. coal to Asia, primarily China. Currently there are no U.S. coal export facilities on the West Coast, and the modest but growing export trade in U.S. coal headed for Asia is shipped from terminals in British Columbia. Three of the U.S. terminal plans have fallen by the wayside, but the three that remain, in Cherry Point, Washington, Longview, Washington, and Boardman, Oregon, would have the capacity to ship close to 120 million tons of coal per year.

A study prepared last summer by three transportation experts for the Western Organization of Resource Councils determined that at full capacity, those six terminals would be able to ship 170 million tons of coal. According to the report, “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” that would mean an additional 57 coal trains passing through Billings on average every day.

With the three remaining terminal plans, the coal train traffic would be almost 70 percent of what the study projected for the original six terminals, meaning that freight train traffic in Billings could roughly triple from what it is today. That could bring the total stalled traffic time on the three Billings streets that cross the train tracks to about seven hours a day.


“It’s already an issue,” said Ed Gulick, an architect whose firm has played a key role in the urban redevelopment here and has an office just south of the railroad tracks. With triple the number of trains, he said, “downtown would be cut off from the interstate, so it will be a huge issue.”

Gulick concedes that many elected officials here don’t see the issue in the same light as he does. In April 2012, the county commissioners in Yellowstone County, which includes Billings, wrote the state’s three-man congressional delegation voicing their support for the proposed coal terminals and predicting they would help expand Montana’s coal industry and spur employment.

But as Larry Swanson, an economist who heads the University of Montana’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West points out, mining in the years 1991–2011 never accounted for more than two percent of the state’s jobs. And he projects that through 2020, the big job growth fields will be health care and social assistance, trade, and retail and hospitality.

The Powder River Basin currently accounts for more than 40 percent of U.S. coal production. As coal used for electricity generation domestically has declined in recent years, the industry has started to pin its hopes for growth on Asia’s appetite for that fuel.

Two years ago, for example, the CEO of industry giant Arch Coal, Steven F. Leer, referred in a press release to the company’s “strategic objective of expanding Powder River Basin coal sales into the Asia-Pacific region.”

And last year, the president of Cloud Peak Energy, Colin Marshall, announced the purchase of a new mine site in the basin, saying the acquisition would “position Cloud Peak Energy well for future growth in our Asian exports as additional terminal capacity becomes available.”


The study prepared for the Western Organization of Resource Councils projects that most of the industry’s hoped-for boom in exports to Asia from Montana and Wyoming would be shipped via BNSF lines from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Northwest. BNSF is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company chaired by investing wizard Warren Buffett.

Communities large and small across that region have been coming to grips with what a major increase in coal train traffic could mean. In many of them, existing rail lines run straight through their downtowns, so the possibility of large numbers of coal trains blocking passage for auto traffic is no small matter.

In Sheridan, Wyoming — population about 18,000 — city officials commissioned a study that looked into relocating the rail line and associated downtown rail yard. The study concluded that the project would cost between $140 million and $169 million. With no relocation of the rail lines and rail yard, the study predicted that in ten years, the number of vehicles experiencing delays at the town’s main rail crossing would more than double to between 3,365 and 4,945 depending on the timing of rail traffic coming through.

“Sheridan had to scramble to come up with $5 million for upgrades to its sewage treatment plan,” said Brad Mohrmann, a consultant who has worked on a separate study of economic development possibilities for the current railroad properties if the rail line is moved. “Where are they going to get $160 million? That would never happen … BNSF is not interested in throwing in one dime.”

Similar concerns are being aired in Livingston, Montana, another town with a rich railroad history where the tracks run through the center of the community. Facilities include a rail yard and shop complex that dates to 1883 where soil and water is contaminated by hydrocarbons, asbestos and chlorinated solvents because of railroad maintenance activities. The area, a state superfund site, is being cleaned up, but at a snail’s pace according to residents.

Located on the Yellowstone River, east of Bozeman, Livingston is a gateway to Yellowstone National Park to the south through the Paradise Valley. It’s become a mecca for anglers, authors and artisans, and the small downtown next to the railroad tracks is an eclectic amalgam of coffee shops, a rail museum in the historic depot, restaurants featuring locally grown food, and fly fishing shops along with welding and industrial supply stores.

Currently about 15 trains a day come through Livingston, said Kerry Fee, executive director of the Park County Environmental Council, who expects the number could double with construction of the coal export terminals. Though he agrees there will be some job growth at the railroad maintenance facility, he thinks overall it would very much be a net negative for the community.

For some in Livingston, climate change is also a significant concern. Courtney Lehmans, a 20-year resident, says Montana during much of that time has been dealing with drought, and she points to the rapid disappearance of many of the glaciers in Glacier National Park as clear evidence of warming. With a big increase in coal production in the Powder River Basin, she says “they’ll be shipping it to China and the emissions are going to hit the jet stream and come right back to us.”

There are only three places in Livingston where vehicles can cross the tracks, and only one of them is an underground bypass that operates even when trains are coming through but which sometimes floods. Fee thinks that double the number of trains will increase the odds that emergency vehicles and EMTs will at some point face an emergency and not be able to get from one side of town to another.

Noise is another concern. Fee says he can hear the train horns from four miles away, and the effort required to pull long trains up Bozeman Pass to the West makes them sound like jet engines in the valley below.

“It’s pretty darn loud,” Fee said. “It will affect property values and it is not going to be good for the economy.”