Tribal fishermen and women along the Columbia River have fought for decades to maintain their access to the waterway and to restore struggling fisheries. Now, they’re also worried about the potential consequences of fossil fuels moving through the Columbia River Gorge.
Trains have been a part of the landscape since the 1800s, but it’s not the trains that worry tribal members, it’s the coal and oil that they’ve started to carry, said Sara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The group unifies the voices of the Yakama Nation, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes in the management of fishery resources, protection of treaty rights and restoration work.
According to the group’s website, $24.7 million has been invested in 321 projects to help restore salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. They worry one oil train derailment would be catastrophic to migratory fish populations and virtually wipe away all recent fishery restoration work they’ve done on the Columbia River and its tributaries.
“Looking at this now, there is some nasty stuff they transport, but they don’t do it in mile-long unit trains. They stagger the hazardous material,” she said. “The magnitude of risk has increased significantly.”
Tribal leaders and members have been speaking out against the terminals that are being proposed around the Northwest and are trying to educate the public about the dangers of fossil fuel shipments. A proposed terminal at the Port of Vancouver would receive up to 360,000 barrels of oil per day by rail.
Johnny Jackson, of the Yakama Nation , said he’s worried not only about the environmental and safety impacts from a train derailment, but of the cumulative impacts of coal dust getting into the river. He lives at a tribal fishing site where the White Salmon and Columbia rivers meet.
“People see coal trains but they don’t see what it’s doing to land. The rain washes the coal dust into the river,” Jackson said. “No matter how you look at it, it’s going to contaminate the river and affect our fish.”
The railroad industry, however, maintains that it can ship products safely.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said coal dust damages rail beds, so companies takes great steps to suppress it. When it’s first loaded in eastern Wyoming and Montana, the coal is piled into the shape of a bread loaf and sprayed with a glue-like material. It’s sprayed once more in Pasco.
“We’re not seeing any dusting issues,” he said.
BNSF moves two or three coal trains per week through the Gorge, plus an occasional shipment from Canada, but Melonas said global demand for coal is down significantly. According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. shipments of commodity groups that included coal for the week ending on Jan. 16 were down 32.6 percent when compared with the same week in 2015.
Shipments for BNSF are not back to pre-recession levels, and BNSF recently furloughed some employees at different locations around the country. The company has come out in support of the Tesoro-Savage crude-by-rail terminal in Vancouver and urged others to do the same.
Through a group called “Friends of BNSF,” the railway circulated documents championing the economic benefits of Northwest terminals.
“BNSF is in support of the facility,” Melonas said. “We’d carry the products and we support economic growth locally.”
Melonas said oil shipments only make up two movements per day through the Gorge and less than 5 percent of the company’s business overall. But the proposed terminal in Vancouver would use an average of four 120-car oil trains every day.
Melonas said overall freight volumes are still not to pre-recession levels, but the company plans to further invest millions of dollars into its network on top of the $11.5 billion it put into capital projects across the country. In 2015, it invested $189 million in improving its infrastructure in Washington alone. Currently, crews are doing an extensive grinding and reshaping on rails through the Gorge.
Melonas acknowledged the resistance to building the terminal, but maintained that BNSF can and does ship all materials safely.
“Contrary to what some of what the opposition to some of our products may say, 99.98 percent of all of our hazardous material made it to port without a release,” Melonas said.