Coal Trains and the Cherry Point Terminal


Those of us that live in the Pacific Northwest enjoy breathing clean, fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, and traveling from place to place with relative ease. This is about to change if groups of international companies are allowed to build six coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon so that Wyoming and Montana coal can be shipped to China to generate electricity. Trains from the Powder River Basin coalfields to these terminals would carry the coal.

Residents of the northern section of the I-5 corridor are mainly concerned about applications submitted by SSA Marine, a Seattle-based shipping terminal company to build a $600 million terminal at Cherry Point.  This terminal would have berths for three large ships. Whatcom County Planning Department has already approved the plan for this terminal north of Bellingham that would eventually export 54 million pounds of coal and other commodities each year. The approval means the environmental review and permitting process can begin. SSA Marine’s proposal predicts a total of 89 jobs created in the near future, rising to over three hundred when the project is completed in 2016. Economists hired by SSA Marine have predicted that more than one thousand jobs would be the direct and indirect result.

There is considerable community opposition to the project. A citizen’s lawsuit has been filed against a subsidiary company, Pacific International Terminals for violations of the federal Clean Waters Act and the Company has already been fined for illegal road building work. Implications of the Project on Treaty Rights are being studied by the Lummi Nation.

The main opposition to the project is focused on the environmental, health, and traffic effects of transporting this tremendous quantity of coal through the region. This annual figure has been estimated at 54 million tons and would involve an additional nine trains a day heading for Cherry Point full of coal, and nine trains returning empty. There is only a single BNSF track with sidings north of Everett. Since an average coal train consists of 100 to 130 cars and each car is just over 50 feet long, we would have between 18 and 22 miles of trains passing a given point on the line each day. It is estimated that additional closings at rail crossings would amount to approximately 10 minutes per hour for most of the day. The accident totals for those trying to win races at the crossings would also escalate. The practical capacity for this line has been calculated at 24 trains per day. It has exceeded this capacity since 2006. An additional 18 trains per day will have a profound effect. Such an increase will warrant safety improvements, new crossing signals and new sidings, paid from the public purse.

Coal trains presently travel uncovered, spewing coal dust over the countryside as they pass. This is a definite health concern. A group of Whatcom County doctors have asked for a human health assessment of this increased train traffic. According to Dr. Frank James, a physician and researcher at the University of Washington: “Coal dust is not really very good for you. There’s arsenic, mercury, and lead and a lot of bad things in coal and when that gets into a water supply, it’s not a very good thing as well.”

There are chemicals known as surfactants that will lower the spread of coal dust and, of course the cars could be covered, but such actions would probably not be considered economically feasible.  In addition to the coal dust, the trains burn diesel and diesel pollution is an irritant to people susceptible to respiratory problems.

As far as the serious environmental and health hazards of burning coal to produce electricity, we can be smug in considering that as being China’s problem. But, the effluents belched out from these plants are released into the upper atmosphere to make the journey eastward and be deposited to pollute the ocean or our land mass.

The battle lines have been struck. As usual, it is the large corporations focused on profits versus private citizens, local governments, and groups concerned about the quality of life.

A number of protests have taken place in Bellingham, and Seattle, Washington, and Salem, Oregon. The governors of both states have called for a comprehensive review of the regional environmental impacts before any new coal terminals are built in the Northwest. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told the Army Corps of Engineers that it should thoroughly review the potential impacts of exporting large amounts of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia.

The term ‘clean coal’ is an oxymoron.

Robert Kennedy Jr., president of the national Waterkeeper Alliance has said: “Coal is a crime, and I’ve been fighting the coal industry for 30 years. What I would say to you is do not let it come through this community.”

The following quote, which sums the situation most clearly is taken from an interview of Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank, by Ashley Ahearn of Earthfix. In answer to the question: “If terminals are built along the Northwest Coast, what is the region going to look like in 5, 10, 20 years?”

Mr. de Place’s answer was; “ It’s a profound question. There are really two possible worlds for the Northwest if the coal terminals get built. One is they’ll ship coal for a couple of years and then they’ll go bust. Coal is a highly volatile commodity. There’s no guarantee that the Asian demand is going to be there in five to 10 years, and it’s going to take several years to get these terminals built and operational. There’s good argument to believe that by the time they’re actually running, they could be running out of a market by then. China and India both have ample supplies of domestic coal and lots of other energy sources to boot, so I can imagine that what we’re looking at five to 10 years from now is wasted port space and surplus machinery and folks out of work.

The other possible future, depending on global economics and energy consumption, is that we’re moving 100 million tons of coal out of Washington state and another 30 million tons of coal out of Oregon and in that case you’ve got nasty black coal dust from Tacoma all the way to Bellingham. We’d have coal dust blowing off huge export terminals on the Columbia River, huge export terminals on North Puget Sound. And then, in addition to that, we’d have the largest vessels in the world moving coal through the San Juan Islands and out across the Pacific and smaller cape-size vessels moving coal out the mouth of the Columbia River from the Port of St. Helens in Oregon and the Port of Longview in Washington.

In any of those scenarios, I think you’re looking at a sort of degraded Northwest that doesn’t look like the kind of Northwest we’ve seen in the past. The region has not been a heavily fossil-fuel-dependent economy ever in its history and so I think you’d see a region that formerly never had any connection to coal, never been touched by big coal, all of a sudden very much embedded in the economy of the coal industry, and I would argue that that’s probably not an economy that the Northwest stands to benefit from over the long term.

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