CAMAS, Wash. — Karen Hall smiles broadly from behind a tall wooden reception desk as an older couple walks through the doors of her tiny, elegantly decorated bed and breakfast.
“You need to check in?” she says, reaching for their luggage. “Let me get you settled. Have you been here before?”
It’s not just their first visit to Hall’s Camas Hotel, the couple tells her. It’s the couple’s first visit to Camas, a small community along the Columbia River. They heard about it by word of mouth, a sign that the town is succeeding at building a reputation as a tourist destination.
But some residents worry Camas could develop a new reputation: as a pass-through town for noisy, dusty coal trains.
Before last year, few Camas residents thought about what increased demand for coal in Asia could mean for them. In Washington, three proposed export terminals would ship coal to markets in Asia. To reach those terminals, coal from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin would travel by rail and pass through many communities — including this one.
Karen Hall and other business owners worry about the side effects of passing trains: What potential damage could the frequent whistles, coal dust, and traffic congestion have on the fledgling tourist economy?
Travelers stop in Camas to explore nearby trails and recreation opportunities or as a stop off during trips along the Columbia. Portland and Vancouver residents come to enjoy the placid weekend tempo. Downtown has been carefully landscaped with quaint street lamps and bright flower boxes. Boutiques, gift shops, and an historic movie theater line the main street. A few blocks down from the hotel the old paper mill is still in operation, pumping steam from towering stacks.
Hall and her husband moved here eight years ago to purchase and renovate the hundred-year-old Camas Hotel. Business has grown, and she says most of her guests leave content. The few complaints she’s fielded are all about the same thing: the train whistle that wakes visitors in the middle of the night.
On an average night at the downtown inn, you might hear the whistle once every other hour or so when a train rumbles through mill property a half-mile away. If plans for additional coal exports go through, anywhere from 5 million to 103 million tons of coal would roll through town. That could mean just four additional trains on a typical day. But if all three terminals are built, more than twenty additional trains would pass through Camas each day.
“It’s loud. And it’s not just one whistle it’s a whole series of five,“ Hall says. “I don’t think the trains actually go every hour at this point, but the expected increase on the rails is a major concern, because then it will be going every hour and then sometimes more than that.”
Scott Higgins is Camas’s part-time mayor. He personally finds the train whistle charming.
“But I don’t sleep next door to it,” says Higgins, who’s also the minister of a small church. “If it really increased a great deal I can definitely see that having a negative impact on some of the restaurants and the things that are happening that are so exciting in our downtown core. We’ve spent a lot of money to make it a destination place, and we want to make sure that that’s not compromised.”
Higgins is not necessarily opposed to the coal trains. He stresses that he doesn’t want to block jobs or opportunities for industry downstream. But he does want his and other pass-through communities to have a voice.
In March, the Camas City Council passed a resolution asking that the city’s interests be considered in the environmental impact statements (EIS) for the proposed export terminals. An EIS is an initial step in the permitting process before projects can be approved by the federal government. Camas wants the EIS to include potential impacts to their community like noise, coal dust blowing off cars, and traffic delays.
Neighboring Washougal, Wash. passed a similar resolution. Washougal has five train crossings to Camas’s one, so they could potentially feel the impact of traffic delays from coal trains more than Camas.
The resolutions got the attention of the railroad. Higgins and his mayoral counterpart from Washougal met this spring with representatives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Higgins says he felt the railroad company was receptive to the idea of putting in a crossing guard with a mechanical arm in Camas, which would allow engineers to skip the whistle.
That could make for quieter trains, but they’d still bring traffic congestion. Robert Hill is a locomotive engineer with BNSF who has lived in Washougal for fourteen years. He spends his working days on trains all over Oregon and Washington and regularly conducts the coal trains that already come through. He says there are ways engineers can avoid stopping traffic for long periods.
“Say that we’re following another train—we know that we need to hold back so we’re not blocking crossings two trains in a row,” says Hill. “We engineers have a little agreement with ourselves that we don’t block crossings.”
Hill was initially surprised to hear about the city resolutions, and says some concerns, like dust blowing off the cars, are exaggerated.
“I’m on these coal trains myself. I’m either rolling them by or I’m seeing them go by. I’ve never once even seen coal dust come off of them at all,” Hill says.
Hill expects increased coal exports to bring more jobs and industry to the region. But still, he’s glad his community is seeking to have a voice in the issue.
“You just can’t give ‘carte blanche’ to things like this. Hopefully this will be good for everybody— financially and environmentally.”
All of the proposed terminals have to go through extensive permitting before being approved. That’s a process that will take a few more years.
(This was first reported for OPB News.)
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