green and sustainable business

Getting the Coal Train Blues

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“People get ready there’s a train a’coming…” Sixteen mile-and-a-half long coal trains a day through West Seattle, my town, to be exact. Or how about 62 coal trains rolling through Spokane every day?

That’s nothing to sing about, unless it’s one of those “low-down dirty blues” songs. A small gathering met at Fauntleroy Church’s Fellowship Hall on Wednesday (Sept. 26) to hear about Big Coal’s noxious plans to ship coal from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Northwest for export to markets in Asia. On hand were representatives from the Sierra Club, Climate Solutions and Earth Ministry to get out the word about those plans and to talk about the activities to derail the export schemes.

“Coal exports are a dirty business,” said Robin Everett, an associate regional representative for the Sierra Club and its Beyond Coal campaign. “It’s dirty every step of the way.”

I’ve written about these plans before on this and other sites, but now it’s getting personal, and it’s that way for anyone who happens to live in the vicinity of BN Railway’s tracks in the PNW. By the way, that’s millions of people who will be exposed to the harmful impacts of moving coal through the region in terms of health, safety, economic disruption, gridlock traffic congestion at rail crossings and infrastructure pressures.

There are at least five pending coal-export terminal proposals in the Pacific Northwest under review to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to markets in Asia. If they are built, about 150 million tons of coal a year could be carried in trains through the Northwest before being shipped to Asia.

At Cherry Point, Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, has joined forces with SSA Marine, which operates more cargo terminals than any other company in the world. Their joint agreement is backed by Goldman Sachs. Under the proposal Peabody would export nearly 50 million tons of coal a year, which translates into 16-18 coal trains up to 1.5 miles long 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.
Currently major efforts to dump the export plans are coalescing at two locations, Cherry Point, which is north of Bellingham, and the Port of Longview, WA.

During the meeting Steve Sundquist of Climate Solutions focused on the trade and transportation aspects of this “wild issue.” For one thing, the rail transport infrastructure in trade-dependent Washington State is geared mainly to eastbound movements of goods and cargo containers from Asia. A huge of influx of coal moving westbound on the same tracks each day will clash dramatically with the eastbound system. Besides that, there’s no guarantee that there is even a long-term market opportunity for cheap coal in Asia—China has huge coal reserves of its own and also is increasingly turning to alternative energy sources. “Exporting coal is a risky business and a story of volatility and failure…the net economic impacts in Whatcom county may well be negative.”

There is also a moral dimension to these proposals because of their impacts on communities and families, says LeeAnne Beres, Executive Director of Earth Ministry. Coal is responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, “so if we solve the coal problem by keeping it in the ground, we’ve solved the climate problem.” In addition the health costs to the community from 18 coal trains moving through West Seattle each day will be “staggering.”

So on its face the export proposals make no sense: it’s a dirty business with no redeeming features or benefits except that it will line the pockets of the big coal companies who don’t want to leave their coal where it belongs—in the ground. They’ll do it at great expense to the health, economy and quality of life in the PNW. That is, of course, unless they get away with it.

An important series of meetings on the environmental impact of the export proposals begin this fall, starting with hugely important decisions around what is called ‘scoping’ – will the scope of the Environment Impact Statement—which likely will issue in 2014—include the communities impacted along the entire train corridor or will it be limited to terminus points?

The scoping issue will be decided first and fought in early 2013 so there is not a lot of time. Register your opinion here: comment@eisgatewaypacificwa.gov.

In addition to the sites mentioned above, you can get more information and get involved at www.coalfreenorthwest.org and www.powerpastcoal.org.

To paraphrase another song — Let’s “keep this train from rollin’ all night long.”


Written by William DiBenedetto

27 September, 2012 at 9:14 am

4 Responses

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  1. “…that’s millions of people who will be exposed to the harmful impacts of moving coal through the region…” That’s precisely the problem. Millions (and millions, and millions – and Billions – of people. Overpopulation is increasingly creating unhappy – and seemingly unsolvable – dilemmas. Coal is a problem. So are the alternatives… as is not having electricity…

    Barbra & Jack Donachy

    27 September, 2012 at 8:15 pm

  2. I love what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and reporting! Keep up the wonderful works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to blogroll.


    28 September, 2012 at 12:36 am

  3. […] minor detail that gets brushed aside is that this is about selling cheap and dirty coal to international – mostly Asian – markets and hauling tens of millions of tons of it through […]

  4. […] Exports. One minor detail that gets brushed aside is that this is about selling cheap and dirty coal to international – mostly Asian – markets and hauling tens of millions of tons of it through […]

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