Coal train derails at gorge reservoir

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SANDPOINT — A coal train carrying 30 cars jumped the tracks next to the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir late Sunday night, the Missoulian reports.

Mon-tana Rail Link spokesman said in a statement that the train was not hauling hazardous material and there were no injuries.

Sanders County Emergency Manager Bill Naegeli told the newspaper that coal is not considered a hazardous material.

“It comes from the ground to begin with and it’s a fossil fuel and it doesn’t break down,” Naegeli said before the connection to his phone broke up, according to the Missoulian report.

Bituminous coal is not listed as an extremely hazardous substance, according to federal code. Government-required material safety data sheets indicate coal practically insoluble in water and is not expected to be harmful to the ecology.

The safety data sheets note, however, that exposure to spilled material may be irritating and harmful to the skin and eyes, and certain components or species of coal can are considered potential carcinogens.

The derailment reportedly occurred at about milepost 20 on Highway 200, between Noxon and Heron.

A photo published by the Missoulian showed crumpled cars and coal spilled onto the narrow bank separating the rail line and the shoreline. The corner of one partially full coal car can be seen sticking into the water.

The shipment of coal and oil on rails along or over regional waterways has been an issue of debate, with some contending disaster is being courted and other arguing the practice is safe.

The Idaho Conservation League said Sunday’s derailment underscores they can happen virtually anywhere and it’s a lottery as to what derailed cars may contain. Sunday’s derailment follows a derailment of empty coal cars in Ponderay in March and the derailment of cars containing corn in May in Cocolalla.

“It just shows that it could be anything — it could be coal, it could be corn, it could be oil — anything,” said Matt Nykeil of the ICL in Sandpoint.

It also demonstrates that a catastrophic spill in one area could easily migrate to another.

“It can affect us even if it occurs in Montana because whatever spills is going to come downstream,” Nykeil said.

The Idaho Conservation League said the spill risk will be increased if BSNF Railway is permitted to build a second bridge across Lake Pend Oreille.

Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper issued a statement which pointed out that the Clark Fork River has overcome decades of toxic pollution from mining and is now considered one of the best fly-fishing destinations in the country.

“This incident is yet another reminder of what’s at risk when we transport tons of uncovered piles of dirty coal along environmentally sensitive waterways. Why sacrifice our clean water when we’ve got better, cleaner options for powering our homes and businesses?” Williamson said.

Coincidentally, the Idaho Lakes Commission is scheduled to take in a presentation on emergency response protocols for catastrophic spills in waterways on Friday, Aug. 25. The commission’s business meeting starts at noon in the Columbia Bank building.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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