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.

The rail line runs some 1,260 miles from the Powder River Basin to west coast ports. Along the way, it cuts through 32 communities and towns in Montana alone, crossing 167 public roads and highways en route.

Billings, Montana's largest city with a population of 104,000, has access to resources unavailable to most other communities on the rail line and is perhaps best equipped to tackle the issue.

The city, hard against a bend in the Yellowstone River, with 800-foot-tall sandstone bluffs hemming it to the north, was built by the railroad in the 1880s and has tied its fate to train traffic ever since.

Cattle dominated trade in the early years, but today oil is the economy: Three of the state's four oil refineries, representing 94 percent of Montana's production, are in or near Billings. Last spring the city made national headlines when the Yellowstone River, running at flood stage due to heavy snow melt, scoured away a pipe carrying crude oil to the Exxon refinery in Billings, dumping 42,000 gallons of crude in the river according to the company.

Trains have always run right through the heart of downtown; three blocks west of one of the main downtown crossings, the twin rail lines split into three, then five, then nine lines and more as the rail yard mushrooms, cleaving the town.

The city has always been blue collar. The boom in expensive, second-home markets that buoyed Bozeman, two hours to the west, never materialized in Billings. The downtown core, left gutted and boarded up in the exodus to the city's outskirts in the 1970s, has only recently started to revive.

That renaissance has been a fragile one, and the prospect of tripling train traffic downtown was enough to draw more than 100 people to a two-day meeting on issue earlier this spring.

Gulick and others fear the costs could be considerable. Sending 148 million tons of coal a year by rail through Billings - a questionable assumption, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway officials are quick to note - would mean 42 more coals trains a day through downtown Billings: 21 full trains a day heading west, 21 empty trains returning east.

Gulick has spent a fair bit of time sitting in traffic downtown. By his watch, a coal train keeps crossing gates down an average of eight minutes. The extra coal trains, when combined with current freight traffic, would block downtown's thoroughfares for up to eight hours a day, he estimates.

Dr. Robert Merchant, a Billings pulmonologist, fears the health cost could be considerable, too. Coal trains bring diesel exhaust, coal dust and noise. All three have health consequences, he said.

Diesel exhaust has been linked to cancer and it can exacerbate asthma; noise has been linked to increased blood pressure. Research around the world has concluded that whenever soot increases, more people die from heart attacks and respiratory problems.

Then there's the coal dust: By BNSF's own estimates, coal trains lose 3 percent to 4 percent of their coal en route to their destination. Powder River Basin coal is particularly friable and easily pulverized. experts say.

"A marked increase in coal trains will markedly impact the health of my patients," Merchant said. "I need to keep them out of the hospital."

Burlington Northern says the city's fears are premature at best. Billings would only see 42 extra trains if all the coal terminals were built, all were operating at capacity, and the railroad sent every ton of coal through Billings, said Zack Anderson, a BNSF spokesman. "That's just not going to happen."

"There's a potential for increased traffic," he acknowledged, but the railroad has other options to get that coal to port. "It's like the telephone network or the Internet," Anderson added. "You want to route things where there's less congestion."

The domestic market, pressured by cheap natural gas and hemmed by a soft economy, is declining. U.S. coal consumption is at its lowest level since 1995. Asia's energy demands, in contrast, are leaping, and the Powder River Basin is well-placed to capitalize on the globalization of what was once a mostly domestic market.

The basin, stretching across eastern Montana and Wyoming, is one of the largest coal reserves in the world. It is certainly the cheapest to mine, with coal sitting near the surface and pricing at near $9 per ton at the mine lately, said Thomas Michael Power, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana who studies the economics of energy.

"There isn't any other large source of coal in the world that can produce coal that cheaply," he said.

Appalachian coal, In contrast, costs $50 to $60 per ton to extract, while Australia's coal - mostly underground - is being delivered to ports for between $80 and $100 a ton, Power said.

"Montana would definitely be in the cross-hairs and could get quite a bit more chewed up as these coal trains go rumbling through all the population areas," Powers said.

Billings has struggled for years to stem train noise and the traffic hassles, with limited success. It has explored various combinations of raising and lowering tracks and downtown thoroughfares, only to be stymied every time by the costs: $25 million to $160 million, depending on the details. Rerouting the tracks around town would cost up to $200 million, before necessary right-of-way acquisitions, said Erin Claunch, a city engineer.

"We're lucky we've never really had a train that tipped over downtown," said Jim Ronquillo, a city council member who represents the city's south side. "If it does, you're going to isolate us for a long time."

The issue is more than train wrecks.

Like many cities, Billings' downtown is starting to revive after several hard decades, with local businesses investing more than $100 million in improvements over the past 10 years, said Gulick, the architect.

That investment is also reflected in jobs growth, noted Larry Swanson, director of the University of Montana's Center for the American West. Mining and agriculture may be integral in Montana's history, but today health services and high-tech industries drive the economy in Billings - and throughout much of the state.

A sharp rise in coal train traffic, Swanson warned, could endanger those gains.

"This is the kind of economy that Billings has been building for two decades," he said.

"It had better pay attention to that."

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This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at