First oil, now coal: More fears of trains coming through Davis

Repost from the Davis Enterprise

First oil, now coal: More fears of trains coming through Davis

By Felicia Alvarez, March 25, 2016

The railways are rumbling with controversy once again as state agencies examine a coal train proposal that could send an additional 9 million tons of coal destined for export across California each year.

Four to six 100-car-long coal trains could travel through Davis each day under the plan, delivering coal from mines near Salt Lake City to a new cargo terminal in Oakland. The train route runs roughly parallel to Interstate 80, through Sacramento and Davis and onward to the Bay Area.

“It would more than triple the amount of coal coming out of the West Coast,” said Ray Sotero, communications director for state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland. Hancock introduced several bills in February to block the coal’s transportation.

The exports hinge on the construction of a new port in Oakland, which is receiving state funding for infrastructure and redevelopment in the surrounding areas. Development on the site has been underway for the past three to four years, led by developer Phil Tagami of Bowie Resource Partners, a Kentucky-based coal company with coal mines in Utah, Sotero said.

The coal train controversy arrives amid ongoing debate over Valero’s proposal to expand its refinery in Benicia and increase crude oil shipments by rail through Northern California.

The proposal — which would send 50-car-long crude oil shipments through Davis and nearby cities twice a day — was rejected last month by the Benicia Planning Commission, but the City Council will hear Valero’s appeal in April.

Coal is far less likely to explode or poison watersheds — unlike tar sands or crude oil — but it still poses an environmental threat, said Lynne Nittler, a Davis environmental advocate.

“It’s a little safer … but air quality-wise it’s nasty,” she said.

About 18,300 tons of coal dust per year could be released into Northern California’s air, affecting cities from Sacramento and Davis to Emeryville and Oakland, according to an environmental health and safety report by the Sierra Club. The report takes a lower-end estimate with the assumption that three coal trains could travel along the rail route each day.

Coal dust includes lead, mercury and arsenic, as well as fine particles that can contribute to asthma and heart disease, the report states. It also can contaminate air, water and soil, and homes and other buildings adjacent to the railroad tracks.

Local air quality is already below state safety standards, said Tom Hall, a spokesman for the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District. The region is currently at the “severe non-attainment” level for ground-level smog, he said.

Right now, railroad transport accounts for about 7 percent of nitrogen oxide — a key component of smog — in the area.

“Any extra nitrogen oxide is kind of a problem,” Hall said.

The notion of increasing coal shipments runs contrary to national trends on this greenhouse-gas-producing fuel. President Barack Obama took a stand against coal earlier this year, halting new coal mining leases, effectively putting a stop to new coal production on federal lands.

“We’ve become such short-term thinkers. … That thinking is deadly to us at this point,” Nittler said.

Meanwhile, the political battle rages on.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a deal last week for a $53 million loan to support construction of the new terminal in Oakland. Proponents of the port project say it will bring new jobs and a consistent market for Utah’s struggling coal industry, the Los Angeles Times reports.

California legislators are igniting their own push against the coal trains through the four bills introduced by Hancock.

Two of the bills are directly geared at the Oakland port. SB 1277 would prohibit shipping coal through the port, which is publicly funded in part. SB 1278 would require an environmental impact review for agencies that have authority to vote on any part of the project.

SB 1279 and SB 1280 would prohibit the use of public funds to build or operate any port that exports coal, and require port facilities that ship bulk commodities and receive state funds to prohibit coal shipments or fully mitigate the greenhouse-gas emissions with coal combustion.

A hearing on the bills is scheduled for April 5 at the state Capitol.