Stacy Max likes to garden in the yard with her children, but on many summer days, she can’t let Olive and Kai outside to play.
The family lives just a few blocks from Missoula’s railyard, and some days the diesel fumes are so strong, Max worries about how the toxins will affect Olive, 4, and Kai, 5 months. So she takes them back inside.
“I don’t know how long I’m actually going to be able to last in this house with the kids, not being able to feel like I can go outside (with them) whenever I want,” Max said.
The worst part about it is her partner warned her about living near the trains before she bought the large Victorian home two and a half years ago. Max grew up in urban Philadelphia and figured she’d get used to the more industrial area.
Now, she is among some neighbors concerned that even more coal train traffic is headed through Missoula, and with it, more fumes, noise and delays at rail crossings.
Last year, Montana Rail Link ran five coal trains a day on average, half full, half empty, and the company doesn’t anticipate much growth in 2012. Its total average traffic in 2011 was 15 trains a day.
A study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, though, projects as many as 60 more trains a day will travel through Montana if plans to develop coal export terminals on the West Coast move ahead over the next several years.
Asia’s demand for energy is skyrocketing, and the Powder River Basin in southeastern Montana and northern Wyoming is chock-full of coal. Coal companies want to export the commodity, and one straight shot to ports on the West Coast is along Montana’s southern rail route.
Max’s house is just two blocks from that route: “If we really wanted to, we probably could move, but it would be a big hardship for us.”
The amount of diesel emissions and coal dust polluting Missoula’s air is hard to pin down.
For one thing, Montana Rail Link notes no evidence of coal dust, and the company has a vested interest in seeking it out. The material can clog ballast and lead to derailments, according to the company.
“We’ve never seen it on our railroad,” said MRL president Tom Walsh.
“We’ve never found any evidence in our yard, on any siding, on any main track anywhere on Montana Rail Link where we had coal dust or some coal coming off the car. We just have never seen it.”
The Missoula City-County Health Department concurs. At a recent City Council committee meeting, a railyard neighbor held up his hands blackened from – he said – coal dust that soils railings outside his home.
At the time, environmental health director Jim Carlson disputed the source and said the soot-like material could be rubber off tires on the freeway – or even black mold. More recently, though, Carlson said the health department hired a lab to test the material and would collect samples as soon as the weather brought a few warm dry days in a row.
At one point, Burlington Northern Santa Fe noted on its website that anywhere from 500 pounds of coal to as much as one ton can be lost from one coal car in transit. The loads are sprayed with a chemical sealant to keep them contained, according to Montana Rail Link.
Diesel emissions are relatively contained, too, and they don’t stick around, Carlson said. In the summer, the sun heats the ground, and he said generally, it disperses the pollution by 9 a.m. The most recent study of the smallest tracked particulate matter in Missoula’s air showed that diesel made up just 4.6 percent; the data is from 2007, the most recent year the health department analyzed particulate pollution sources.
In general, Carlson said parents like Max don’t have much to worry about because Missoula has clean air: “People that live closer to heavily used roads have more exposure to more pollutants. People who live closer to any particulate source have more exposure than some others. But on average, the air in Missoula is pretty darn good.”
Max, though, is probably less concerned about the average air quality in Missoula than she is about the air around her home. And using a global number when it comes to air quality under-represents the dangers a person or child is exposed to when they are close to a pollution source, said Paul Smith, one of two pediatric pulmonologists in Montana.
“(Coal dust during shipping is) a huge area of concern, both for adult lung disease and childhood lung disease, as well as water pollution and the heavy metals those coal dusts deposit into our streams,” said Smith, a doctor at Community Medical Center in Missoula.
Diesel emissions increase during transport and contain nitric oxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, he said. They cause cumulative damage to the lungs, and Smith said “it is not something that goes away.”
“These parents aren’t imagining this. Their children have these symptoms, and the symptoms are very easy to see,” Smith said.
Just one day of exposure can cause an airway spasm, he said. And on days when the air is bad, more children with asthma end up in the hospital.
The cumulative risks have caused doctors in Whatcom County, Wash., the site of a proposed coal export terminal, to call for “a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment in addition to an Environmental Impact Statement addressing these (health) issues along the entire rail corridor.”
Nearly 170 medical professionals signed the petition at last count.
Even as parents such as Max take steps to keep their children safe, Montana Rail Link takes steps to burn less fuel. With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a couple years ago, the company installed devices on its locomotives that allow engines to stay warm without running the entire locomotive.
The installations have cut fuel consumption from 8 million or 9 million gallons a year to 6 million gallons a year, Walsh said. And reductions in emissions go hand-in-hand.
Back in 2005, the company had around 74 locomotives. Now, it counts 53 units in its fleet, including 37 that are “pre-1973.” Over the last seven years, though, MRL has purchased 16 brand new locomotives with “state-of-the-art technology” and retired 39 old units.
“They’ve really been a godsend to us,” Walsh said of the new units.
“They reduce our fuel consumption by 25 percent, so the emissions are significantly reduced just because we’re using less fuel.”
With trains come noise, and Mark Stergios can describe them the way an avid birdwatcher can describe bird calls, although not with the same affection.
Stergios, who lives in the lower Rattlesnake neighborhood, considers himself “one of the crankies” when it comes to the blaring horns, but he’s also become a train whistle connoisseur.
“Some of them are beautiful. It’s true. You’ve got to hear them to believe it. They’re like Gabriel’s trumpet,” Stergios said.
He lives about 200 yards from the tracks, an estimated 300 yards away from the place where the whistles start blowing. Sometimes, if “Casey” is in a good mood, he’ll give a series of short “toots.”
“But they’ve got some of these guys who like to lay on that airhorn for 30 seconds at a time,” Stergios said. “It’s enough to wake the dead.”
The problem, he said, is that the traffic could increase by 40 more coal trains a day, and that’d mean “bedlam” for folks within earshot.
Montana Rail Link isn’t projecting nearly that kind of traffic, but if it happens, Stergios has faith the company will continue to be a good neighbor to Missoulians and help with a fix.
Peter Lesica, on the leadership team of the Lower Rattlesnake Neighborhood Council, has been looking into ways to get around the warning blasts. By law, he said, the trains have to sound their horns to announce their presence, but there are exceptions.
One is if a crossing has four-way gates instead of just two: “Then, supposedly a car can’t get through, and you don’t have to do the horn anymore. So that’s fine except guess how much the gates cost?”
They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, but there’s yet another possibility. Instead of having the trains blow horns “aimed at the universe,” a loudspeaker set up at the crossing can aim right at cars instead.
“It decreases the amount of noise that goes into the neighborhoods,” Lesica said.
Stergios figures Montana Rail Link or Burlington Northern Santa Fe will pony up for some solution that helps keep the surrounding residential area more quiet: “The railroads have been so community minded, I have a feeling just to keep peace in the neighborhood, they’ll pop for that.”
In a legal opinion, city attorney Jim Nugent wrote that Montana state law allows local municipalities to create “quiet zones,” as long as they implement corresponding safety measures. Billings was one of the first communities in the state to create such a zone, according to Montana Rail Link.
“While MRL worked with the Billings officials to help meet (Federal Railroad Administration) requirements, the responsibility of acquiring the quiet zone designation belongs to the city,” said MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost in a statement.
Traffic delays and accidents on the tracks are other considerations.
Harold Hoem, with Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow, said there’s no doubt that rail is the best way to move freight across the country.
But he pointed to a study that says when traffic exceeds 30 trains a day, accidents are more prevalent.
He understands that to a certain degree, Montana Rail Link doesn’t have a choice when it comes to hauling coal – or any other good: “They’re sort of the middle man for whatever they pick up from Burlington Northern.”
Montana Rail Link recently completed a study that clocked the amount of time it took each train to cross Madison Street. The study counted 60 trains over the course of three days, and 52 of them crossed in less than 10 minutes, said MRL’s Frost. Just one train took 18 minutes, seven trains took from nine to 12 minutes, and overall, the average train took seven to eight minutes, including the longest trains of 125 cars.
Municipal code imposes a 10-minute maximum time limit for a train to be blocking an intersection located within the city limits, according to city attorney Jim Nugent. The code isn’t more specific when it comes to, say, intervals in an hour. Missoula sets speed limits at crossings at 30 mph, and 45 mph elsewhere inside city limits.
The trains travel through many crossings in many Montana towns. At least for fire engines heading up the Rattlesnake, though, additional traffic and possible delays don’t pose a problem, according to Missoula Fire Department Chief Jason Diehl.
When the crossing near Greenough Park is blocked, a light alerts the closest fire station, and drivers go up Van Buren instead. He estimated the loss of time to be “minimal to non-existent depending on the destination.” The station used to be located at the current site of the Mountain Line transfer center, and it’s currently at Pine and Madison streets, much closer to the Rattlesnake neighborhoods.
“Fire response times to the Rattlesnake are better today than they were before,” Diehl said.