Proposed Coal Terminal Concerns Citizens, Scientists

The picture says it all. Imagine a photo of a busy highway overpass where several freeways intersect. Alongside runs an elevated rail track, snaking alongside the highest deck of traffic. The image shows cars stopped in all directions after a mile-and-half-long freight train derails 40 feet in the air, spilling container cars across the landscape. The photo is the definition of disaster. And it embodies what opponents of a new coal shipping terminal (or set of them) in Washington and Oregon envision when they learn about a plan to ship 48 million tons of coal per year to China and South Korea.

Cherry Point Opponents Envision Train Cars Spilling Coal and Creating an Environmental Disaster

Cherry Point Opponents Envision Train Cars Spilling Coal and Creating an Environmental Disaster

The picturesque Pacific Northwest is home to green, rolling hills not belching trains loaded with polluting coal. Many say that image is more like West Virginia than Washington. Washington is also an environmental leader, concerned about climate change and a proponent of clean energy. As a state and region, many fear becoming the largest coal exporter in the world (if all planned terminals come to fruition) just sends the wrong message.

Supporters of the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal and other shipping terminals in Longview, WA and three in Oregon cite jobs as the primary reason to push forward with the plan. They also say that if Washington and Oregon don’t build a way to get soft coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to China and South Korea the jobs, tax revenue and economic development will just shift north to British Columbia. Supporters call opponents alarmist and accuse them of being obstructionists.

Proposed Coal Trains Will Be Over A Mile-And-A-Half Long with up to 150 Cars Pulled by 4 or 5 Locomotives

Proposed Coal Trains Will Be Over A Mile-And-A-Half Long with up to 150 Cars Pulled by 4 or 5 Locomotives

Peabody Energy is the primary backer of the new proposed Cherry Point terminal and the company says it wants to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement based on sound science. During a set of seven public meetings around the state both detractors and supporters have voiced their opinions on what areas need to be studied.

The $665 million terminal project will be built by SSA Marine, a large global export terminal operator. If built the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point would be the largest bulk export facility on the west coast and at full capacity it would be the largest in the nation.

SSA Marine Senior Vice President for Business Development Bob Watters submitted a written statement at the Friday Harbor meeting. In it he says, “I want San Juan islanders to know that SSA Marine wants a very thorough science-based evaluation of our project. We believe this process will help bring that about. Most important, the Gateway Pacific Terminal will meet our state’s high environmental standards.”

Ocean Impact

Getting the coal from its source to the coast where it can be shipped to Asia doesn’t involve crossing any big bodies of water. Yet, marine biologists and ecologists are weighing in because they see potential ocean impacts, ranging from increased container ship traffic through the delicate San Juan Islands to the high cost of a coal spill in the water along coast, which is rich in marine biodiversity.

An increase in shipping traffic by as many as 480 super-sized container ships carrying coal each year through the San Juans occupied the minds of those at a public meeting in Friday Harbor in November.

Retired ferry boat captain Ken Burtness says, “These are constrained waters with many hazards.” As a resident of Lopez Island he says a coal spill would be “catastrophic to the San Juans, [possibly] worse than Exxon Valdez.” John Brash, a retired merchant sailor agreed with Burtness’ assessment. He says, “We’re going to be in real trouble if a maritime disaster occurs.”

Cherry Point Industrial Site Could Be Home to Largest Coal Export Terminal in North America

Cherry Point Industrial Site Could Be Home to Largest Coal Export Terminal in North America

Though knowledgeable, neither man is a scientist. The three-agency panel that will conduct the EIS is looking to people like Dr. Joe Gaydos of Orcas Island-based SeaDoc Society. He says the waters off northwest Washington and southwestern British Columbia known as the Salish Sea are home to 37 species of marine mammals, 172 species of birds and 280 species of fish. He also says that one-third of the mammals and birds, and 15 percent of the fish, are listed either as endangered or threatened under federal law.

Gaydos argues that the coal terminal EIS must be “comprehensive, pragmatic and even global” in its scope.

Retired physicist Val Veirs is worried about whales and increased noise as ship traffic grows. Over the last year and a half he has tracked about 10,000 ships that have passed in front of a lighthouse near his home on San Juan Island, an area full of whales and dolphins.

Curious about decibel levels Dr. Veirs dropped some hydrophones to measure the underwater noise. He noticed that during the times when ships pass by orca vocalizations became louder. He says, “The whales markedly increase the loudness of their vocalizations when ship noise causes background interference with the social and feeding interactions of local pods.” he adds, “It’s like they are yelling at each other just to be heard. This can’t be good for orca family life.”

Citizens and scientists alike are hoping that the Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County focuses the EIS on ocean impacts like bunker fuel spills, bilge and ballast water contamination and noise pollution.

Carbon Emissions

Even though the coal that would be shipped through the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be burned in the region many are very concerned about contributing to global warming by sanctioning the use of coal in developing countries just as developed nations are exploring other energy options. Sierra Club and other environmental organizations are vehemently opposed to the coal terminal because selling coal to China just means that more coal will produce more pollution, including carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Environmental groups say the additional 48 million tons of coal per year that Cherry Point would ship overseas is like putting 23 million new cars on the road every year.

Shuozhou Coal Plant in Shanxi, China Spews CO2 into the Atmosphere

Shuozhou Coal Plant in Shanxi, China Spews CO2 into the Atmosphere

And by supplying China with a cheap form of electricity a U.S. coal export industry would create a disincentive for China and other nations to explore cleaner energy alternatives.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that global carbon dioxide levels need to peak by 2015 in order to stave off the worst consequences of global warming and keep the temperature rise between 2 and 2.4 degrees Celsius this century. The Cherry Point coal terminal will likely go online between 2015 and 2017 at a time when all nations need to actively work to reduce emissions not create new sources of them.

Students at University of Washington penned a resolution opposing the coal terminal plan (PDF). The Associated Students of University of Washington cite climate change as a key factor in the determination of a coal terminal at Cherry Point and one in Longview, Washington. In part, the resolution says, “WHEREAS, the proposed coal export terminals at Cherry Point and Longview Washington would harm the global environment by enabling the continued combustion of coal in China by selling it at a price lower than could otherwise be produced, thereby releasing large amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts is the ‘dominant factor in the radiative forcing of climate in the industrial era;’ and through localized pollution to air, surface water, groundwater, and soil in communities from Wyoming to China where coal extraction, transportation, and combustion take place; and,[1][2]…”

Recently, the largest coal mining company in Australia issued a statement, announcing that its Hay Point coal export terminal was going to be retrofitted to withstand future climate change. The matter-of-fact language used in the presentation by BHP Billiton executive Marcus Randolph admitting that climate change is having a measurable impact now — without denying the science — is very striking for a coal company.

Randolph says, “As we see more cyclone-related events…the vulnerability of one of these facilities to a cyclone is quite high. So we built a model saying this is how we see this impacting what the economics would be and used that with our board of directors to rebuild the facility to be more durable to climate change.”

Shuozhou Coal Plant in Shanxi, China Deposits Coal Ash over the Landscape

Shuozhou Coal Plant in Shanxi, China Deposits Coal Ash over the Landscape

Carl Pope, the former head of the Sierra Club says, “You couldn’t ask for a more surprising source for our basic message: coal causes climate change, climate changes creates more extreme weather, more extreme weather will force us to make huge new investments in trying to protect ourselves.”

A month before issuing his statement, Randolph suggested that coal production in the future will decline thanks to environmental restraints. But what is unusual for the man in charge of the coal division for his company is that he agrees it should. He says, “In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem, how do you think this is going to evolve over a 30-to-40-year time horizon? You’d have to look at that and say on balance, I suspect, the usage of thermal coal is going to decline. And frankly it should.”

NASA climate scientist James Hansen has long opposed the use of coal because its main byproduct carbon dioxide tends to hang around in the atmosphere for a long, long time. He says in his 2009 article, The Sword of Damocles, “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. Our global climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear, and there is a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible — if we do not rapidly slow fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades.”

Human Health

Even though the potential coal export business will merely move coal from the source in Montana and Wyoming to China and the rest of Asia, doctors are very concerned for the communities along the rail route. And at some level the coal burned in Asia makes its way back over to the western U.S. It arrives as brilliant red sunsets as particulates refract the setting sun’s light. But it also increases asthma in children and causes mercury to build up on glaciers and in water.

Dr. Frank James is the health/medical officer for San Juan County and for the Nooksack Indian Nation. He is also a member of Whatcom Docs, a group of physicians concerned about potential health impacts of the proposed coal port and coal trains on local communities.

Coal Dust Coats Grass and Gets into People's Lungs

Coal Dust Coats Grass and Gets into People’s Lungs

He and his colleagues are worried about the global impacts of continued coal production and especially of increasing its use. Peabody Energy insists that coal dust from trains in Whatcom County and the state is a “non issue.”

But the doctors identified four major areas of health impacts from the proposed Cherry Point terminal project. They say it would increase exposure to diesel particulate matter, coal dust, and noise pollution from the additional 18 mile-and-a-half long trains traveling across the state daily. The doctors also expressed concern about increased injury or fatality rates, and also noted the potential for delayed emergency medical response capacity due to delay at rail crossings.

Dr. James says, “The effects of air pollution are not hypothetical, but real and measurable.”

Radiologist Gita Rabbani says, “The published data clearly show that airborne pollutants and noise exposure have a negative effect on health, even at levels below national standards.”

Whatcom Docs is a non-paritsan group of 180 doctors who have “grave concerns” about the proposed coal terminal.

Bellingham internist and primary care physician Dr. Gib Morrow says, “We know the economic costs of caring for patients with asthma, emphysema, cardiac disease and malignancy are significant, and we understand the degree of suffering that can occur. We as a community need to fully understand these issues, which is why we’re calling for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment along the entire rail corridor.”

Train Math

It sounds like a story problem a math student would be doing. There are 48 million tons of coal that need to get from Wyoming to China by train car. How many more trains per day will the already congested rail line need to fill the order? Full coal trains return empty so each train is making two trips. Currently there are a couple of daily coal trains running through the Puget Sound corridor, carrying coal to British Columbia.

According to the Peabody Energy plan the number of trains per day would jump up to 18. And that’s on already busy railroad tracks that have other freight trains, commuter and passenger rail trains already.

The new coal trains are likely to be long–about one and a half miles long–made up of 125-150 cars each. Communities like Marysville and Edmonds have train tracks that cut right through the center of town. During those periods traffic backs up on either side of the crossing. If the coal trains are longer than the town itself they could shut down traffic altogether when they pass through town. In Seattle, traffic is already dramatically slowed by trains. Many can’t imagine waiting an hour for a slow-rolling coal train to pass along an area at an already greatly reduced speed.

Coal Trains May Begin Their 600-Mile Journey from Wyoming to Washington by 2015

Coal Trains May Begin Their 600-Mile Journey from Wyoming to Washington by 2015

Coal train opponents worry that the extreme weight of a fully-loaded coal car (about 143 tons) would require four or five train engines to pull the freight. That means diesel emissions along rail lines would increase significantly. And because the trains are heavier the noise would be greater and there is some concern about long term use of the trains on the stability of the rail bed and nearby building foundations.

Because coal cars are typically uncovered, trains lose at least 500 pounds of coal dust per trip. That fugitive dust, in addition to posing a human health risk, has also been blamed for train derailments. In the last two years alone there have been 38 coal train derailments.

Eric de Place from the environmental group Sightline Institute says the math just doesn’t add up. He says, “The coal trains have virtually nothing to offer Seattle except delay and pollution. They will connect a handful of mining jobs in Wyoming or Montana to a handful of railroad jobs to a relatively small number of jobs at a port site near the Canadian border. But at what cost to jobs and businesses in Seattle and other cities along the way?”

The seventh and final public scoping meeting to get input from the public takes place on December 13 in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center from 4-7 p.m. The purpose of the meetings is to allow public comment to guide the direction of the environmental impact statement that the three state agencies will need to file before the Cherry Point and other planned coal terminals can move forward with their plans.

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