Nick Gier, Moscow
Moscow-Pullman Daily News 11/16/12
If the coal companies and their allies have their way, the nation’s largest coal terminal will be built at Cherry Point, Washington, just north of Bellingham. It is estimated that 40 to 60 extra coal trains from southeastern Montana and Wyoming will pass through Sandpoint and Spokane.
Nine trains per day will be redirected to Bellingham, and the remainder will be sent to other proposed ports, through a rail system that is already at 80 percent capacity. Nearly 140 million tons of additional coal will be sent to China each year.
The residents of Spokane will at least have a chance to have their concerns heard. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will conduct a “scoping” hearing from 3 to 7 pm on December 4 at the Spokane Fairgrounds. Activists all along various rail routes are demanding that the scope of the environmental impact review be “from mines to ports,” not just the terminals themselves.
The hearings have been billed as the “biggest experiment in environmental democracy the Northwest has ever seen.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has joined the activists in supporting a regional impact study, and the Army Corps has already received 30,000 letters.
The first hearings were held in Bellingham and Mount Vernon. More than 3,000 residents attended, and 980 people spoke out or wrote comments. The overwhelming majority of the presenters were against the coal trains. It was reported that “opposition speakers ranged from Native American leaders to retired scientists, organic farmers, commercial fishermen, and birders.”
One birder testified that at least two bird species may be threatened by increased rail traffic. The Lummi Tribe testified that further development at Cherry Point will threaten the spawning grounds of herring, the main staple of salmon and orca whales.
A hearing was also held on San Juan Island, where 250 people turned out to protest the dramatic increase in ship traffic through the narrow passageways of one of the most beautiful maritime regions of the country. The coal ships, 1,000 per year, are so large they cannot pass through either the Panama or Suez canals. Unlike oil tankers, they are single-hulled and do not require tugboat escorts.
Residents along the tracks in Spokane already have higher mortality rates, partially because of the diesel exhaust and coal dust that already pollute their neighborhoods. A typical coal train sheds 125 pounds of coal dust per mile on the 800-mile route from the mines.
The people of Sandpoint will have no official say in this dramatic increase in train traffic, so between noon and 4 pm on Saturday, activists from Moscow and Spokane are converging on Sandpoint to stage demonstrations, distribute information, and protest proposals for more coal trains and ports.
In August, there were two derailments on tracks near Sandpoint. The month before, 31 cars of a coal train turned over near Mesa, Washington, sending up a towering cloud of coal dust.
In July, 3,100 tons of Wyoming coal was spilled near Chicago, burying a car with two passengers. In August, 21 coal cars tipped over in Ellicott City, Maryland, killing two teenage girls. It was reported that coal dust “rose like smoke” around the entire area.
More than 160 elected officials – including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Oregon’s governor, and Seattle’s mayor – 600 health professionals, more than 400 local businesses, 220 faith leaders, close to 30 municipalities, and Northwest Indians have either voiced concern or come out against coal export from the West Coast.
I encourage the residents of the Northwest to join us in stopping any additional coal exports to China. Prevailing winds will bring the pollution right back on us and will contribute to global climate change. Trains 1.5-miles long will clog traffic, hinder emergency vehicles, cause hearing loss, and produce dangerous air pollution.
(Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read the full version of Nick’s newspaper article on coal export trains, Coal Trains Threaten Environment and Public Health, which appeared as a feature 1700-word article in the Idaho State Journal on December 2, after this shorter version in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on November 16.)