The nation’s largest coal mining companies had hoped for quick approval of plans to export Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and Montana to the endless power plants and factories of China. But summer settles into fall with permit applications in abeyance and growing resistance in Pacific Northwest communities, not only ones adjacent to but also some far from the ports that hope to ship the coal.
Two export terminals filed permit applications earlier this year, only to be sent back to the drawing board by regulatory agencies. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, would export some 48 million tons of coal a year and the Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview applied for 5.7 million tons but later admitted to plans for seeking 60 million tons once a permit was granted. Neither has given a timeline for a new application. The ports, if allowed, would be the only coal export facilities on the U.S. Pacific Coast, and larger than any Canadian port.
This week a growing coalition is regrouping to widen the scope of opposition in communities all along the roughly 1,100-mile line from the coal fields to the Northwest Washington. The Power Past Coal coalition will directly connect with Pacific Northwest communities that have been targeted by the coal industry as export sites or fear the health and economic impact of new railroad traffic.
The coalition will be able to combine small local groups that can provide volunteers with the substantial finances and lawyering expertise of national environmental organizations. Earlier this year the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign received a four-year $50 million grant from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's charitable foundation; none of the grant will go directly to Power Past Coal, leaders say, but efforts are certain to overlap. Some of the new group are also involved in the NW Energy Coalition, formed in the 1980s.
Ross Macfarlane of Climate Solutions said the non-profit organization, based in Seattle but with offices around the Northwest, would handle much of the organizational work but rely on local partners in their communities; the coalition, he noted, would avoid duplication and provide unity in fundraising. “We have groups that are concerned about health and environmental issues, and also about transportation and the impacts on the ultimate consumers.” Partners will be listed on a remodeled Web site for Power Past Coal, which is expected to be open Thursday.
“Coal companies stand to make huge profits," the coalition said in announcing its partners. "China would get the energy. The Northwest would pay the price. We can do better than coal export to build our states’ economies. Washington and Oregon have long and proud histories of economic innovation, and already support thousands of high-tech and clean energy jobs. We should focus on building those industries — not supporting old industries like dirty coal.”
As of Tuesday (Sept. 20), Power Past Coal boasted some 50 organizations, ranging from small community activist groups, such as Safeguard the South Fork in eastern Whatcom County, to larger groups, such as the Washington Environmental Council and the Sierra Club. Much of the campaign leadership is from Climate Solutions’ headquarters.
Power Past Coal brings together anti-coal forces with community groups primarily concerned about rail traffic. BNSF trains run through most of Western Washington’s major cities, and from Spokane and Tri-Cities along the scenic Columbia River Gorge. In Spokane, a major rail hub, Mayor Mary Verner has joined several Western Washington mayors in expressing concern. A 2010 study of the large Spokane railyard pointed to a higher cancer risk for residents living near the rail switching facility; the risk is primarily linked to diesel fumes. In Bellingham, a coalition of some 160 physicians has cited that risk in a statement opposing the Cherry Point facility.
In addition to objections to diesel fumes and coal dust from open-hopper coal cars, opponents cite the disturbance of train horns, particular during nighttime hours, as the mile-and-a-half unit trains pass through residential corridors. Currently, BNSF is running six daily coal unit trains through Western Washington, to and from Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C. The Cherry Point terminal would add 18 more trains, bringing the coal train count to 24 daily, in addition to about 10 Amtrak and regular freight trains, some of which are as lengthy as the coal trains. In the busiest corridors in the Seattle-Everett-Tacoma area, the rail traffic is even higher due to Sound Transit and additional freight and Amtrak trains.
The concern over added train traffic brought the Port of Skagit to call on Gateway Pacific Terminal to include in its cost of doing business the impact of trains on local communities. The Port noted that many additional rail overpasses and signalized crossings will be needed because of the added train traffic, and said the export terminal should pay those costs. “The notion of he who benefits pays is considered fundamentally fair in America,” the Port stated, “and we believe it is fully applicable to the Gateway project’s effect on our community.” Gateway Pacific has in the past rejected the idea of helping pay for off-site mitigation, and did not elect to respond to the Skagit statement.
SSA Marine is hoping to combat local concerns about coal trains with a series of four public presentations sponsored by the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has endorsed the Gateway Pacific Terminal; two of the four sessions directly concern railroad issues. The first session was Sept. 20.
Power Past Coal begins its community organizing at a time when the leading contenders for export terminals are recovering from procedural setbacks that have forced them to return to the drawing board to create new permit applications.
Ambre Energy, an Australia-based coal giant, hoped for quick action at Longview and gained early approval in November of a shoreline permit from Cowlitz County. But opponents hastily organized and forced a review of the permit by the State Shoreline Management Board and in the process turned up a series of emails in which the company stated plans to quietly enlarge its original exports from 5.7 million tons a year up to as much as 60 million tons, after a permit was granted. A red-faced company was forced to withdraw its application in March, but it has promised a new filing. Joe Cannon, CEO of Millennium at the time of the filings, resigned in August after only 10 months on the job and was replaced by an executive of Arch Coal, which has a minority interest in Millennium.
At Cherry Point north of Bellingham, SSA Marine and its subsidiary, Pacific International Terminals, began community organizing last year, lining up political support before the plans had been widely aired in Whatcom County. But by the time an actual permit application was filed in May, activists were pushing back and county planners rejected the first set of plans for Gateway Pacific Terminal. SSA Marine had tried to file its application as only an extension of an approved 1997 shoreline permit; but the county noted that the earlier permit was much smaller and did not mention coal as a commodity. SSA Marine is also planning a new application.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!