BILLINGS, Mont.—The emissions are unhealthy, the noise insufferable. But it's the wait that can be life-threatening.
Every day, 20 freight trains rumble through downtown Billings. Five of those are coal trains - 120 cars stretching a half-mile and carrying 17,000 tons of coal west.
The trains bisect the town, cutting affluent north from poorer and predominantly minority south. The city's only two hospitals sit on the northern half of town, and residents fear that one day a long wait - or a train wreck - could leave a large chunk of the city isolated from medical care.
That hasn't happened yet, and train traffic has been manageable so far. But it's about to get far worse, city residents fear. Asia's surging demand for coal could bring up to 42 more coal trains a day through downtown Billings, clogging crossings for up to eight hours daily, local activists predict.
Coal in the trains cutting through Billings - and a string of smaller communities in Montana, Oregon and Washington - comes mostly from eastern Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the nation's single-largest source of coal.
Companies scrapped 423 million tons of coal from the earth there last year - 40 percent of the coal mined in the country. Three-quarters of that coal went east to power plants in the Midwest and Southeast; today one out of five homes and businesses in the United States is powered by Wyoming's sub-bituminous coal.
A small sliver - 13 million tons - went west through Billings in 2011, to two coal-fired plants in Oregon and Washington and for what - so far - has been a fledgling export coal market to power-hungry Asia. And it's the export market that has residents here concerned.
Coal is turning into a global commodity, and companies controlling vast coal reserves in eastern Wyoming and Montana see opportunity in Asia.
Plans are afoot to build terminals in Puget Sound that could send upwards of 148 million tons of coal eastward. The Asia export market is exploding, jumping from 3.8 million tons in 2009 to 27.5 million tons in 2011, according to Energy Information Agency data.
Cloud Peak Energy, one of the only Powder River Basin operators shipping to Asia today, said exports ballooned 42 percent to almost 5 million tons of coal last year.
The cheapest way to get that coal to port is by rail. And for the mostly small, rural communities along the rail lines, the growth could spell bad news.
"It's a question of fairness," said Ed Gulick, a local architect and past chairman of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, a local community group that organized the forum. "The coal companies are going to benefit quite a bit from exporting coal to Asia. But who's going to pay for the costs?"
The fight in Billings mimics discussions going on in communities across the United States as energy becomes increasingly global and far-flung:
- This Saturday (May 5, 2012), activists in Canada plan to prevent Burlington Northern 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 pipeline carrying crude from Canada's oil sands to Louisiana's ports, floundered amid opposition to routing pipe over Nebraska's fragile dunes.
- A New Jersey mayor has called on the president to block a pipeline carrying natural gas from Pennsylvania's fields to Manhattan.
- In the Minnesota prairie, wind turbines block the horizon in three directions, yet not a single electron flows to the state. The juice goes two states over, to Indiana, sparking local protests.
- A proposed high-voltage line carrying electricity from wind and solar projects in California's Imperial Valley to San Diego has been dogged by legal challenges since regulators OK'd it in 2008.