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Coal Trains Run into Stiff Resistance in U.S.

Activists say the coal trains lose one pound of toxic dust per car per mile. Credit: Scott Granneman/cc by 2.0

Activists say the coal trains lose one pound of toxic dust per car per mile. Credit: Scott Granneman/cc by 2.0

SPOKANE, Washington, Dec 27 2013 (IPS) - Citizens and activists in the U.S. Pacific Northwest are fighting three different proposed coal terminals, including one in Oregon and two in Washington.

Meanwhile, three formerly proposed coal terminals have already been defeated. Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign recently cited these defeats as signs of progress in the broader campaign to retire the use of coal plants across the U.S. altogether.

"If we allow corporations to export… it undercuts all the work that we’ve done to address the climate crisis." -- Trip Jennings

“There are three main reasons we oppose coal exports,” Trip Jennings, organiser for Portland Rising Tide, told IPS.

“The first reason – I think the most important for us – is the fact that we’re closing down power plants in the U.S.,” he said. “Oregon and Washington will be totally coal-free in a number of years. We as a community and as citizens decided we didn’t want to burn coal. If we allow corporations to export… it undercuts all the work that we’ve done to address the climate crisis.”

“Second, this has a huge impact on the number of trains that are coming through this area. It creates a situation where we’re committed to shipping highly destructive commodities, rather than shipping people or clean resources on our rails,” Jennings said.

“Third is the dust that is created when these cars lose one pound of dust per car per mile. They’re sprinkling the countryside, the rivers, streams, and communities with toxic, dirty coal dust [leading to asthma and lung disease].”

On May 8, energy company Kinder-Morgan abandoned plans to build a massive export terminal near Clatskanie, Oregon along the Columbia River, which would have exported 15 to 30 million tonnes of coal overseas each year from the Powder River Basin.

On Apr. 1, energy company Metro Ports, the last remaining investor in a proposed Coos Bay Terminal, in Coos Bay, Oregon, allowed its negotiating contract to expire.

International investors Mitsui & Co. of Japan and the Korean Electric Power Corporation had already withdrawn from negotiations. This terminal would have allowed for the shipment of eight to 10 million tonnes of coal each year.

The third victory for activists occurred last August, when Rail America withdrew plans for a coal terminal at the Port of Greys Harbor in Hoquiam, Washington, that would have transported about five million tonnes of coal each year.

The terminals still pending include a two-port plan called Morrow Pacific, in Morrow and St. Helens, Oregon; the Millennium Bulk Terminal at the Port of Longview, Washington; and the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham, Washington.

The Power Past Coal coalition, Portland Rising Tide and Idaho Rising Tide, the Backbone Campaign, Occupy Spokane, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club, are groups that have been involved in opposing these projects.

Portland Rising Tide, founded in 2007, is part of an international network of groups that works to address the root causes of climate change. It started in Europe and expanded to the U.S. in 2006.

According to Jennings, “[The coal dust from the trains] also blankets the rivers and streams with toxic dust, killing salmon, preventing salmon from continuing to spawn where they’ve spawned for millions of years. We’ve spent so many resources in the Northwest rehabilitating and protecting our salmon runs. These trains come in and they’ll be blanketing our salmon spawning beds with toxic coal dust.”

The coal would come from mines at the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming and the Tongue River Basin in eastern Montana. The proposed trains would bring the coal through the Columbia River Gorge, to boats. It would then be brought by train south through Portland and Vancouver, Washington, where the trains would turn north or continue west to one of the proposed port terminals.

Spokane, Washington would be impacted by any one of the three current coal train proposals, because they would all come through the city. Many residents there are concerned the increased train traffic will increase the number of times each day that traffic is stopped, meaning that emergency vehicles will not be able to get through.

Over 400 people attended a public hearing regarding the Millennium Bulk Terminal proposal in September 2013; most who attended were in opposition to the train.

At the hearing, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart held up a bag of coal that he and other residents have collected, containing whole pieces of coal that had fallen off previous coal train shipments. The trains can lose up to one tonne of coal during their journey, advocates say.

Overall, the Millennium Bulk Terminal galvanised some 164,000 citizens to submit comments to the Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to the end of the comment period last month.

Meanwhile, the Power Past Coal coalition, which itself is a coalition of groups, has largely spent its time focusing on the regulatory and permitting processes.

One victory from their participation in the environmental impact statement process is that the county and state agreed to consider the environmental impact not only of the carbon emissions in transporting the coal, but also the emissions that will result when the coal is consumed, for the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal.

However, no government agency has agreed to include in its environmental impact study “what kind of pollutants are going to occur in cities that have no other connection other than that they’re a pass-through city to the ports,” Cullen Gatten, who participated as a legal observer of the protests outside the recent hearing in Spokane, on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild, told IPS.

“China is also slowly moving away from using coal. They’re looking at clean energy, too. They [China] may use it now, but… there is some concern they are going to move on before we excavate all the coal,” Gatten said.

The most significant international investor, involved in two out of three of the proposals, is Ambre Energy, an Australian firm.

At the beginning of this week, Liz Fuller, a spokeswoman for Ambre Energy, asked IPS to email a list of questions, but the company did not respond to them.

Recently, the coal terminal proposals became an issue in the elections for county commissioners in Whatcom County, Oregon, where anti-terminal candidates won a majority of the seats on the board.

As a result, the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal may be doomed, Gatten said.

 
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  • Theo

    I didn’t realize that these trains release toxic dust. I probably should have but just didn’t. I live less than a few hundred feet from railroad tracks which carry a lot of coal trains.

  • Jeff Kropf

    I can see why Ambre chose not to respond to the questions regarding this article. They knew it would be nothing more than a recitation of anti coal talking points. A little logic here on the part of the reporter would have been nice. For instance, if toxic coal dust was killing salmon, then where is the proof? I mean, after 40 years of transporting coal along the Columbia River and other waterways, you would think there would be all kinds of proof right? Well, the truth is that there has never been a recorded complaint in all those years of coal trains transporting coal. If it were as bad as they say it is, then why are people like Theo not being impacted? He didn’t even know about coal dust as he admits in his comment below. Why? Because the evidence of it just isn’t there. Again, a little logic here would be nice, not just the hyped lies of the anti coal folks.

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