The City Council once again passed on the opportunity to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to include Billings in an environmental impact study of West Coast coal ports.
Although no formal decision was made at the council's work session Monday night, council members agreed to instruct the city staff to take no action on the subject for now.
That direction was given after a two-hour process during which the council debated the issue and heard 14 people speak at a public hearing — four of them opposed to Billings' involvement in the study and 10 in favor.
Throughout the discussion there was much talk of various people and organizations being pro- or anti-coal. It was obvious that a majority of the council was in the pro-coal camp.
"I don't want the extreme environmental groups to pull us into their fight against coal, because that's all this is," said Councilman Ed Ulledalen of Ward 4.
Even Councilman Jim Ronquillo of Ward 1, who pressed the hardest in favor of doing something about traffic congestion caused by train traffic, said he wasn't opposed to coal trains per se, or to trains carrying Bakken oil, for that matter.
Last June, the council voted 8-3 against sending a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers that had been drafted by the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council.
Later in the summer, Ronquillo asked the city staff to do more research and bring back another proposal for sending off a letter. There was some confusion Monday night as to whom that letter was supposed to go and what it was supposed to say.
Councilman Denis Pitman of Ward 2 said Ronquillo's request did not mention a letter to the Army Corps, and Councilwoman Jani McCall said she thought Ronquillo had asked only for more information on solutions the city could pursue to deal with train-traffic congestion.
By the end of the discussion Monday, Ronquillo said he didn't care who got the letter, as long as someone in a position to help heard the city's concerns.
"Leastways they'd know we're interested," he said.
Terry Whiteside, a transportation consultant who prepared the "Heavy Traffic Ahead" study of coal train traffic for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, said the Army Corps has agreed to expand the scope of its port study at least as far east as Spokane, Wash.
He said it's possible that the Surface Transportation Board could conduct a separate study of affected cities farther east, including Billings. He said Billings should be trying to stay out front on the issue because between Bakken oil and coal heading to the West Coast, it could feel the effects of increased train traffic more than any other city.
Todd O'Hare, a spokesman for Cloud Peak Energy in Helena, said the effort to have cities sign on to the Army Corps study was part of a national fight against coal and an attempt to bog down the environmental study process and build a case for future lawsuits.
Speakers who favored sending the letter said they weren't for or against coal.
"I'm pro-information," said Ed Gulick, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. "I see no downside to being part of this EIS."
But a majority of council members said coal trains weren't the problem — train traffic of all kinds was, and an environmental study would do nothing to help the city mitigate the effects of that traffic.