Yellowstone County commissioners have denied a request by the Northern Plains Resource Council to seek a place in formal discussions of increased coal train traffic through Billings and its environmental consequences.
Instead, the commission threw its support Tuesday behind Montana coal exports with a letter to Montana’s congressional delegation.
“Much of Montana coal is exported to Asian markets via west coast ports. As such, we advocate for, and support, the expansion of additional shipping capacity in existing ports and, hopefully the building of a new port,” the commission’s letter said.
“New export terminals in Washington and Oregon will create jobs in their home states and will allow Montana mines to expand and hire with jobs that will support a family,” said Commission Chairman John Ostlund.
NPRC had asked the commission to take a political position, Ostlund said.
“My vote is for Montana jobs,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Reno and Bill Kennedy also said they support jobs creation and coal development and that work continues to address concerns about making rail intersections safe.
Amaya Garcia and David Strong, co-chairs of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, an NPRC affiliate group, had asked commissioners to urge the community’s Policy Coordinating Committee to submit a request to Washington state officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to include the county in an environmental review of the proposed expansion of the port in Cherry Point, Wash. The PCC is composed of local and state government officials who decide how transportation money is spent in the Billings area.
Washington and the Corps will be holding scoping meetings this summer for an environmental analysis of the Cherry Point expansion plan. The expansion, YVCC said, would lead to a large increase in coal train traffic.
Coal train traffic and its impact on downtown Billings was the focus of a two-day conference in March organized by YVCC. The conference drew about 100 citizens, economists, government officials and railroad representatives to discuss planning for the impact of coal trains.
YVCC estimates that increased sales of Montana and Wyoming coal to Asian markets could result in 40 coal trains a day passing through Billings, about triple the coal train traffic in 2009.
No one from YVCC spoke at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Reno noted that Billings has three rail underpasses — at Sixth Street West, North 23rd Street and North 13 Street— to help motorists when trains block crossings at north 27th, 28th, and 29th streets between Montana and Minnesota avenues.
“It isn’t that we don’t have underpasses,” he said.
Billings was built around the railroad and diverting the tracks would put them “into someone else’s backyard,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he has been meeting with the Downtown Business Association and will be talking to the state Department of Transportation about traffic, lighting and signal issues.
“I think we’re going forward to make sure intersections will be safe,” Kennedy said.