Coal Train Derailment Offers Lesson on Danger of Fossil Fuel on Rails

Between proposed coal export terminals and expanding oil production, more fuel is transported by trains than ever–with potentially disastrous consequences.

At 11:30PM on the evening of Sept. 26th, 2018, a coal train derailed just outside of downtown Columbus, Montana. Thirty-nine cars spilled 4,600 tons of coal, including into the Yellowstone River. The destination of the coal is unknown, but could have been either of the coal-fired power plants in Boardman, Ore, or Centralia, Wash, or an export terminal near Vancouver, British Columbia.

Recent years have seen proposals for several new coal export terminals along the west coast. Most of these proposed terminal projects have been abandoned. One proposed export facility remains: the Millennium Bulk Terminal, sited for Longview, Wash. The facility has been denied multiple permits from a variety of regulatory agencies, and has not succeeded in overturning those rulings. Each export terminal permit that’s denied is a significant victory for towns along the route, as dozens more loaded coal trains won’t roll through, threatening public health and safety, damaging local infrastructure, and negatively impacting property values.

map of the columbus coal train derailment
This wreck occurred less than an hour from WORC’s main office in Billings. It’s a reminder that while rail accidents are rare, they do happen. This crash was particularly sobering happening so close to homes and businesses, especially in light of the increase in volatile Bakken crude being shipped by rail. As bad as this wreck was, no one was injured.
crews removing wrecked train cars
By the time these photos were taken, railroad crews had moved the wrecked coal cars off the tracks to allow train traffic to resume. Cars were piled and stacked between the road berm and the tracks. A significant amount of coal remains on the ground. As open-top coal cars depart the Powder River Basin, coal dust is released along the route, despite efforts to mitigate its release. A single car can release between 500 pounds and one ton of coal dust during transport. Coal trains are typically built to a length of 125-150 cars, leading to the release of significant dust en route. Very fine dust is a health hazard because it can be breathed deep into the lungs of both adults and children without being filtered out, causing inflammation.
wrecked train cars
The dangers of transporting coal are well known: all coals have a propensity to self-heat and release methane gas. In fact, coal spilled during a 2017 coal train derailment near Noxon, Montana, began smoldering along the banks of the Clark Fork River a month after the crash. As climate change dries out western states, the chances that this could result in dangerous wildfires increase, even well after the time of the crash.
coal train disaster
Rail cars were torn apart, even at the relatively slow speeds that trains are required to observe when they’re rolling through towns. Thousands of tons of coal were dumped, including into the Yellowstone River. Mounds of coal are visible on the far side (the river-side) of the railroad berm. It could have been far worse. Had this been an oil train, the fireball from forty oil cars igniting may have incinerated many of the houses in the neighborhood as well as the retirement home at a time when residents would have been asleep. Even if the wreck didn’t result in an inferno, 39 oil tanker cars can carry 1.4 million gallons of crude, and much of it would have ended up in the river.

Read more coal stories here.

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