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Public Theology: Coal Trains Threaten the Pacific Northwest
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Coal Trains Threaten the Pacific Northwest
What is especially not needed right now is more infrastructure to transport and burn more coal in the world. The fact is that coal is dirty energy, very dirty. It should be left in the ground.

Editor's Note: An action group called "Power Past Coal" has created an excellent website concerning proposals for coal trains down the Columbia River to deliver the product via ships to China. This is alarming to residents of the area for many reasons. On the website is a section on the impacts of these coal trains. I have reproduced below that section of the website for easy access here in one article. The political cartoon is by George Hall.

Coal companies, seeing little future growth domestically, have a new plan: strip-mine coal in Montana and Wyoming, transport it on long coal trains and massive cargo ships through Washington and Oregon, and sell it to Asia.

The Powder River Basin is one of the largest coal reserves in the world, and the easiest gateway to get that strip-mined coal to Asia is through West Coast ports, especially Washington and Oregon.

Currently, the nation’s two largest coal companies, Arch Coal and Peabody, and the Australian-based Ambre Energy, are working on massive coal export terminals at Longview, WA and Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, WA. There are also potential proposals for many other communities, including two along the Columbia River at St. Helens, OR and Boardman, OR and another at Coos Bay, OR. Recently, RailAmerica shelved plans for a coal export terminal at Grays Harbor, WA.

Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Being a gateway for coal export would fly in the face of our region’s leadership in the clean energy economy. Shipping up to a hundred million tons of coal a year to Asia through West Coast ports would spread toxic coal dust in dozens of the rail communities, clog our railroads and ports, risk our families’ health, pollute our air and water, and stoke the climate crisis.

We need to power past coal. We can do better, keeping our local economies strong and the places we love intact for our families. We won’t sell the soul of our communities for coal. The costs to our health, quality of life and our home towns are too high.

Economic Impacts

We can do better than coal export to build our region’s economy. Coal companies stand to make huge profits. China would get the energy. The Northwest would pay the price.

Washington and Oregon have long and proud history of economic innovation, and our region already supports thousands of high-tech and clean energy jobs that can’t be outsourced. We should focus on building those industries – not supporting and becoming a middleman in the world’s dying industries of the past like dirty coal.

Pioneering a sustainable prosperity is both our responsibility and one of our greatest economic opportunities; Coal export would bind us – economically, politically, and morally – to the opposite path: a global economic development strategy that is fundamentally incompatible with energy security and climate stability.

Making coal a major export product from Washington state raises serious questions about its impact on our economy – and the economics of coal.
  • Coal export terminals employ surprisingly few people – less than many other commodities – and in the process cover acres of desirable waterfront land with piles of coal.
  • Train traffic from the proposed coal export terminals would pose serious risks to other economic drivers – in Bellingham, essentially cutting off the new waterfront development for hours of the day.
  • Coal hasn’t panned out as an economic boom for West Coast cities that have tried exporting it in the past. Both Portland and Los Angeles lost millions on unsuccessful coal terminal projects (in the 1980s and 1990s respectively).
  • By increasing the supply of coal available in growing markets, price will go down, thus making coal more affordable and coal-fired power plants a more desirable choice for China.
Environmental Impacts

Exporting pollution to Asia means more environmental problems here at home, including contamination of our local air and water. If even one of these proposed terminals went forward, Washington shorelines would be given over to industrial sites with enormous piles of coal and constant noise and dust. For example, the proposed terminal site at Cherry Point would span 1200 acres, fill 141 acres of wetlands, and sit directly on herring grounds, which are a primary food source for Chinook salmon. Salmon in turn are the main food source for imperiled Puget Sound Orcas.

There are significant costs in the lifecycle of coal, as documented by Harvard Professor Paul R. Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., Center for Health and the Global Environment, in the study the Full Cost for Accounting for the Lifecycle of Coal: “Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and are thus often considered ‘externalities.’ We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.”

There would also be significant environmental impact abroad. As the world’s largest coal user, China produces at least 375 million tons of toxic coal ash annually or enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two and a half minutes. Coal ash disposal sites release lead, boron, selenium, cadmium, thallium and other pollutants – posing a serious risk to the health of those living nearby.

And the air pollution doesn’t stay near to home – more coal burning in China means more toxic air pollution traveling across the Pacific to contaminate our Northwest rivers, lakes and fish, including mercury and ozone pollution.

Health and Safety Impacts

The proposed coal export terminals would result in a dramatic increase in the number of mile-long, open-car coal trains traveling across Washington – one new terminal would mean up to eighteen coal trains a day through communities near the terminal. That means countless open coal cars traveling through our communities, leaving a trail of coal dust behind. Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) railroad studies estimate up to 500 pounds of coal can be lost in the form of dust from each rail car en route. Coal dust and diesel exhaust from coal trains and cargo ships can cause serious long-term health problems like lung and heart disease and cancer.

The coal then arrives at the terminals where it is kept in large piles, exposed to wind and weather which, in other coal terminals, means coal dust has been spread for miles into the surrounding community. Coal dust has been linked to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema.

In addition to coal dust, there are the impacts of the coal trains themselves, which generate noise, create collision hazards, and impede rail crossings. Trains are also responsible for hazardous air pollution from diesel engines, a documented threat to health in Washington.

Increased traffic delays at busy rail crossings would clog commuter traffic and could slow response times for emergency responders and limit access to neighborhoods, schools and business corridors. A single slow-moving coal train can obstruct a rail crossing by 6 minutes or more. Adding just 20 trains to Washington’s rail system would mean blocking some crossings by 2 hours per day.

More Mining

If the proposed coal export terminals in the Northwest went forward, they would significantly increase the amount of coal mined for export. Already the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana is the single largest source of coal in the United States. Meeting export goals would likely require coal companies to open brand new areas of mining and expand existing coal mining operations.

Coal mining causes significant air pollution, largely created by blasting, drilling, collecting, hauling and moving heavy machinery. Additional mining would increase these air pollutants in the coal fields. New mines would increase pollution in already impacted communities, put more communities at risk, and industrialize thousands of acres of agricultural lands and wildlife habitat.

Coal mining also pollutes the water supply. Coalbeds in the Powder River Basin serve as aquifers for the region. Strip mining severs and destroys these aquifers, which are critical sources of groundwater for agriculture and wildlife. Reclaiming the lands and water impacted by coal mining has to date been largely unsuccessful.

Climate Change Impacts

Asia would put the coal exported through Northwest terminals to use manufacturing goods, some of which used to be made in America and many of which will be consumed in America. The other major import that would result? Pollution.

The poorly regulated Asian coal plants are major sources of global warming pollution and toxic air contaminants. Burning the 130 million tons of coal annually that may be shipped through Washington ports would produce approximately 208 million tons of the pollution that causes global warming.

Coal is the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal export – which is directly linked to development of coal-based energy infrastructure in Asia – would make it virtually impossible to stabilize climate pollution at safe levels. If the fast-growing Asian economies continue to invest in long-lived, capital-intensive coal power infrastructure at their current rate, we will be irrevocably locked in to global emission trajectories that guarantee catastrophic climate disruption.

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Date Added: 5/2/2013 Date Revised: 5/2/2013 3:22:56 PM

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