CAPITAL PRESS – COLUMN BY JOHN STUHLMILLER
Perceptions of railroads appear to be relative to where you live these days.
If you live in the big city, trains that whisk you from one urban center to the next are “state-of-the-art,” but if you live in rural areas, where trains are used to move commodities, they pose a cancer threat.
At least that’s what the state of Washington is telling us.
On May 21, the Washington State Department of Transportation rolled out its new Charger locomotives for passenger rail service along the I-5 corridor. As WSDOT notes on its website for the official unveiling event, the new 4,400-horsepower Cummins QSK95 engines are “next generation rail equipment” that will “feature improved fuel efficiency and safety upgrades” and, most importantly, will “meet new, stringent emission standards.” The WSDOT hosted a PR event to mark the launch of its new train, complete with “commemorative giveaways,” formal remarks by dignitaries and a toast to christen the new train.
This is pretty remarkable, given that just a month earlier, the state Department of Ecology sent a very different message about trains when it issued its final environmental impact statement (FEIS) on the Millennium Bulk Terminals project. In its findings, the agency claimed that trains serving Millennium would increase the potential cancer risk for members of a Longview neighborhood.
So what kind of engines will be used for the Millennium project?
The same 4,400 horsepower locomotive engines with the same emissions profile as those used in Seattle.
Clearly double standards abound on this. Let’s start with the cancer allegations. Why would the same trains used in Seattle increase cancer risks when used in Longview?
The answer likely has to do with what’s being hauled. Because the Longview trains will haul coal, they apparently came under sharper scrutiny than, say, a train carrying people around Seattle. This is a political battle, pure and simple. It’s worth noting that after five years in the review process, this issue was never raised until April’s FEIS document was released. No public reviews, no public hearings. In fact the agency failed to account for the use of idle control technology used by the railroads, or that the carrier, BNSF, is using the cleanest, most efficient fleet in North America.
This begs the question: Would Ecology have advanced a similar finding for Sound Transit permitting, a grain terminal or other commodities? What about all of the other trains that run through the Puget Sound region on a daily basis — including the new Charger, launched with a state-funded celebration?
In the case of Millennium, we’re seeing an agency that has chosen to play favorites with commodities. This sets a dangerous precedent for any industry, but especially agriculture, which just happens to be our state’s second largest sector, right behind aerospace. Will our products be subject to such scrutiny for new projects? What about GMOs? Or fertilizers? Or airplanes?
The fact is, trains are the safest, most efficient means of moving anything on land, period. Freight trains effectively take the equivalent of 280 trucks off the highway, which saves four times the fuel and reduces emissions and highway traffic congestion.
Trains are also the safest means of moving people from one place to another on land. The WSDOT says so on its website: “Passenger rail service is an efficient and environmentally sound travel mode and these locomotives will pull Washington-state sponsored Amtrak Cascades trains.”
Vilifying rail because the commodity it carries — under requirement of federal law — has no place in the permitting process and sets a dangerous precedent for our state. We can and must do better, or risk jeopardizing our entire trade-based economy.