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Seattle City Council: Thumbs down on PNW coal-export terminals

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Seattle’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the development of coal-export terminals in Washington State, but what does it really mean? Actually not much – it’s a victory, sort of, for environmental activists that are fighting proposals to transport coal on 1.5 mile-long trains through the region for eventual export to China.

But the city council has no real say on what happens with this issue; it was an easy vote for the council members. But it is a clear message from a city and port that prides itself on its greenness. (Regarding the Port of Seattle: the port’s opposition to a new sports arena in the SoDo district for NBA-starved fans because of “traffic” is both heartless, tone deaf, short-sighted and incredibly lame – but I digress.)

There are at least six coal-export terminal proposals in the Pacific Northwest under review to ship coal from the Powder River basin of Montana and Wyoming to markets in Asia. If they are built, about 100 million tons of coal a year could be carried in trains through the Northwest before being shipped to Asia.

Mining and burning more coal isn’t consistent with the city’s goal to fight climate change, said Council-member Mike O’Brien, sponsor of the resolution. “This goes against what we stand for from a climate change standpoint,” he said.

“We view this as an attack on our jobs,” said Mike Elliott of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who spoke against the resolution during the council meeting.

About 70 freight and passenger trains travel through Seattle each day. Some of those carry coal through Seattle to the only coal-export terminal on the West Coast, located in British Columbia. The exact number of such trains is considered proprietary information, according to BNSF Railway. (Now why is that propriety info at the same time that the railroad wants to bring even more coal, coal dust and traffic through the PNW? Again I digress.)

At Cherry Point, Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, has hooked up with SSA Marine, which operates more cargo terminals than any other company in the world. Their joint agreement is backed by Goldman Sachs. Under their proposal they would export nearly 50 million tons of coal a year, which translates into 18 coal trains up to two miles long from Wyoming and Montana moving through Washington’s Whatcom County each day.

Five other projects have been proposed at Longview and the Port of Grays Harbor in Washington State, as well as Coos Bay in Oregon and two sites on the Columbia River.

Smaller Northwest communities, including Hood River, Ore., and Camas, Washougal and Marysville in Washington, have passed resolutions raising concerns about the impact of potential increased rail traffic along the Columbia River Gorge and through the Puget Sound corridor.

Environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the Sierra Student Coalition, Climate Solutions and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility are geared up to derail the coal train idea.

“Coal exports are a dirty business,” said Robin Everett, an associate regional representative for the Sierra Club and its Beyond Coal campaign, at a forum late last year at the University of Washington.

It’s dirty in every way: bad for people’s health, bad for the environment and the jobs argument is at best overblown and beside the most important point, which is to stop flooding the world market with cheap coal moving through the Emerald City and the PNW.

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Written by William DiBenedetto

20 June, 2012 at 2:32 am

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