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BNSF invests $26 million in Pasco train facility

BNSF Railway Co. has a big stake in the Millennium Bulk Terminals Longview plan. Anticipating a jump in the number of coal trains serving the new export terminal, it spent $26 million last year to prepare its Pasco yard for the added traffic.

The debate over Millennium Bulk Terminals’ controversial plans arrives in Pasco this week. The proposal is the subject of a day-long open house and public hearing from 1 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. June 2 at TRAC in Pasco. The hearing centers on the draft environmental impact statement prepared for the project and will inform if the project is authorized.

Hundreds attended a similar hearing Thursday in Spokane. Pasco is the final leg of the push to secure public comment. Not coincidentally, BNSF is a big supporter and Pasco is home to its largest yard in the Northwest.

“It’s a very important facility for us,” said Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for the Fort Worth, Texas-based railroad.

If the $680 million Millennium Bulk coal export terminal is built, BNSF will transport coal roughly 1,200 miles from the mines of the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to Longview by way of its Pasco hump yard.

A hump yard is the railroad equivalent of a mail sorting center. The railroad breaks down trains and reassembles them based on the destination of the freight.

Coal trains aren’t broken down in Pasco, but they do pass through the yard’s new “re-spray” facility. Open coal and coke cars are sprayed with a glue-like topping agent meant to reduce dust.

Loads receive a first coating at the mine and are re-sprayed in Pasco, which also received new mainline track in the 2015 upgrade.

Wallace said the railroad itself identified coal dust as a problem than 10 years ago. Untreated, coal cars were losing about 500 pounds per load, much of it near the mines. The accumulated coal dust caused track to deteriorate and raised the cost of maintenance. Environmental groups have called coal dust a potential health hazard.

BNSF controls coal dust by mounding coal in the shape of a bread loaf, which it says minimizes wind resistance. The topping agents reduce coal dust by at least 85 percent, Wallace said. She said the railroad has had no further issues with coal dust-related maintenance issues since it started controlling for it.

But opponents say the approach isn’t foolproof.

The Sightline Institute, a Seattle environmental think tank cites research by Daniel Jaffe, a professor at the University of Washington, that found diesel-powered coal trains release twice as much particulate matter as similarly-powered freight trains. Coal dust made up half the emissions, according to the Jaffe paper, which was peer-reviewed and published in the November 2015 edition of the journal Atmospheric Pollution Research.

BNSF questioned the objectivity of the study, which received funding from the devoutly anti-coal Sierra Club, and said the researchers mistook coal trains for petroleum coke ones and vise versa.

Wallace said BNSF’s mission is to transport goods and as a federally-regulated company, it doesn’t get to choose which goods it carries.

“Whether or not Millennium Bulk Terminals or other terminals go through, we’ll continue to make those investments to make sure all those trains on our tracks get from Point A to Point B,” she said.

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