A Rail Hub in Idaho – the Alberta Tar Sands, the Bakken Oil Fields, and Powder River Basin Coal Collide in Sandpoint

By Richard Jehn, Journey Chronicler

I am compelled to speak a humble prayer that the collision never occurs, as it would likely cause as much devastation to the beautiful little town of Sandpoint, Idaho (pop. about 7,500) as did the explosion of an oil train in Lac Mégantic, Quebec.

Sandpoint is located in northern Idaho, north of Coeur d’Alene, on Lake Pend Oreille, and only about 75 miles from the Canadian border. Beautiful hills and mountainous terrain surround the townsite, which is located on the west shore of the lake. Pend Oreille is the largest lake in Idaho, 40 miles in length, north to south, and 4 miles wide. It covers 125 square miles, is 1,150 feet deep, and is noted for its Kamloops rainbow trout. The name of the lake is derived from the French name (Pend d’Oreille) for the Kalispel Indians, who wore shell ear pendants.


Strong feelings revealed in Sandpoint, ID

Two railroad companies, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific, own track in Sandpoint and operate trains through the town. Up to 45 trains per day travel through the community, carrying bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, and coal from the Powder River Basin coal fields in southeastern Montana. Empty cars also travel back through Sandpoint to be refilled in those locations. Since 2012, the amount of rail traffic has increased significantly with the more prevalent transport of crude and bitumen by rail, much of which is destined for immediate export.

When we first arrived at the Sandpoint Beach Park, Gary Payton, representing Presbyterians for Earth Care, introduced himself and we spoke for a few minutes. He identified Susan Drumheller and Nancy Dooley of the Idaho Conservation League and primary organizers of the event. He added that Shannon Williamson, President of the Sandpoint City Council and Executive Director of Pend Oreille Waterkeepers, would be speaking.


Nancy Dooley at the Sandpoint Blessing while an empty coal train passes behind her.

As Nancy introduced the event, a northbound empty coal train passed behind her, providing the pointed exclamation mark to our gathering. This was later amplified by Shannon Williamson’s words as her two young children played in a tree nearby, reminding us that this is why we do this: to ensure our children and all future generations have a planet on which they can live, love, and experience creation.

I spoke to Selma Bair, an audience member and concerned citizen who has lived in Sandpoint her entire life and who has perspective on the changes in rail traffic and in the climate in her lifetime, asking her first if she had hope for our future. Her tears flowed as she told me, “We have to have hope.” She also spoke of her long-time neighbor, who was disinterested in coming to the event. When I asked her why she thought that might be, she said, “Because she just can’t be bothered.” How many of your family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues just “can’t be bothered” to direct their attention to something that actually matters: ensuring climate change does not reach a level that cannot be reversed?

After spirited presentations by Jewell James and Rueben George, we wound up the event with our eyes toward Missoula, Montana for an event this same afternoon. Noteworthy is that Reuben revealed his work with many other people up and down the west coast of North America, from Alaska to California, to form the Salish Sea Alliance, an organization intended to protect coastal waters.

I had a remarkable conversation with John Anderson who has lived just outside of Sandpoint for 30 years at the northeast corner of Lake Pend Oreille. Railroad tracks run within ¼ mile of his home. In 1989, he initiated the Kalispel history project and followed that with a 10-year effort to bring recognition to the Kalispel people, who were moved out of their homelands into Montana and Usk, Washington. John was also one of the founders of the Panhandle Environmental League in 1982, an organization that disbanded within 4 years after losing every single vote they attempted at the local and state levels. We promised each other to keep in touch to continue our fruitful dialogue.