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Rising coal exports have montana rail communities braced for worst. - Panasonic Toner Cartridges Ma by wang dong

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Rising coal exports have montana rail communities braced for worst. - Panasonic Toner Cartridges Ma by
Article Posted: 05/30/2013
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Rising coal exports have montana rail communities braced for worst. - Panasonic Toner Cartridges Ma

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Every day, 20 freight trains rumble through downtown Billings. Fiveof those are coal trains 120 cars stretching a half-mile andcarrying 17,000 tons of coal west. The trains bisect the town, cutting affluent north from poorer andpredominantly minority south. The city's only two hospitals sit onthe northern half of town, and residents fear that one day a longwait or a train wreck could leave a large chunk of the cityisolated from medical care. That hasn't happened yet, and train traffic has been manageable sofar.

But it's about to get far worse, city residents fear. Asia'ssurging demand for coal could bring up to 42 more coal trains a daythrough downtown Billings, clogging crossings for up to eight hoursdaily, local activists predict. Coal in the trains cutting through Billings and a string ofsmaller communities in Montana, Oregon and Washington comesmostly from eastern Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the nation'ssingle-largest source of coal. Powered by coal Companies scraped 423 million tons of coal from the earth therelast year 40 percent of the coal mined in the country.Three-quarters of that coal went east to power plants in theMidwest and Southeast; today one out of five homes and businessesin the United States is powered by Wyoming's sub-bituminouscoal. A small sliver 13 million tons went west through Billings in2011, to two coal-fired plants in Oregon and Washington and forwhat so far has been a fledgling export coal market to power-hungryAsia.

But it's the export market that has residents here concerned. Coal is turning into a global commodity, and companies controllingvast coal reserves in eastern Wyoming and Montana see opportunityin Asia. Plans are afoot to build terminals in Puget Sound that could sendupwards of 148 million tons of coal eastward. The Asia exportmarket is exploding, jumping from 3.8 million tons in 2009 to 27.5million tons in 2011, according to Energy Information Agency data. Cloud Peak Energy , one of the only Powder River Basin operators shipping to Asiatoday, said exports ballooned 42 percent to almost 5 million tonsof coal last year.

'Question of fairness' The cheapest way to get that coal to port is by rail. And for themostly small, rural communities along the rail lines, the growthcould spell bad news. "It's a question of fairness," said Ed Gulick, a local architectand past chairman of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, alocal community group. "The coal companies are going to benefitquite a bit from exporting coal to Asia. But who's going to pay forthe costs?" The fight in Billings mimics discussions going on in communitiesacross the United States as energy becomes increasingly global andfar-flung: On Saturday, activists in Canada plan to prevent BurlingtonNorthern Santa Fe coal trains from passing through White Rock,British Columbia, to deliver coal destined for export to Asia.

The most high-profile example, the proposed Keystone XL pipelinecarrying crude from Canada's oil sands to Louisiana's ports,floundered amid opposition to routing pipe over Nebraska's fragiledunes. A New Jersey mayor has called on the president to block a pipelinecarrying natural gas from Pennsylvania's fields to Manhattan. In the Minnesota prairie, wind turbines block the horizon in threedirections, yet not a single electron flows to the state. The juicegoes two states over, to Indiana, sparking local protests.

A proposed high-voltage line carrying electricity from wind andsolar projects in California s Imperial Valley to San Diego hasbeen dogged by legal challenges since regulators OK'd it in 2008. The rail line runs some 1,260 miles from the Powder River Basin towest coast ports. Along the way, it cuts through 32 communities andtowns in Montana alone, crossing 167 public roads and highways enroute. Built by the railroad Billings, Montana's largest city with a population of 104,000, hasaccess to resources unavailable to most other communities on therail line and is perhaps best equipped to tackle the issue. The city, hard against a bend in the Yellowstone River, with800-foot-tall sandstone bluffs hemming it to the north, was builtby the railroad in the 1880s and has tied its fate to train trafficever since.

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