American coal bound for the greedy furnaces of Asia gained a foothold on the Columbia River but faced citizen anger on Northern Puget Sound on Thursday as 2012 shapes up as the year of coal wars in the Pacific Northwest.
The Oregon Port of St. Helens, down river from Portland, approved lease options for two giant coal companies to use Port Westward facilities to transfer Wyoming coal to huge ships bound for China and other Asian ports. Combined, they would load some 23 million tons a year, but they face a host of permitting and citizen roadblocks before any coal is shipped.
Activists in Bellingham launched an initiative petition on Thursday (Jan. 26) that they believe has the power to stop any coal shipments through the city. Peabody Coal wants to ship up to 48 million tons a year through the city en route to a new export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham.
Opposition in both St. Helens and Bellingham, as in many cities along the routes, targets the mile-and-a-half-long coal trains that would carry the coal from Wyoming to the terminals. At the St. Helens hearing, a Rainier city councilman and several others objected to the added train traffic along a little-used spur railroad running from Portland to Clatskanie; the tracks bisect the small city of Rainier.
In Bellingham, Coal-Free Bellingham is sponsoring an initiative that, supporters contend, would allow city voters to override federal statutes that have traditionally given railroads free rein to carry legal cargoes from state to state.
Initiative sponsors have until July to collect about 4,800 signatures and force a November ballot. Some 200 enthusiastic supporters showed up to launch the drive. Last June, nearly 1,000 people signed a petition at an event headed by environmental leader Bill McKibben, so the campaign has a core constituency for its launch. McKibben has sent a letter backing the initiative.
The most popular applause line of the night in Bellingham: “We have the right to decide — it is our right to decide what happens here,” from retired corporate lawyer Stoney Bird, who helped draft the initiative. The initiative, similar to ordinances proposed in other communities, presents a “Bill of Rights” to protect “residents, natural communities and ecosystems of the city” and seeks to nullify contrary federal laws and regulations.
In the case of Bellingham, that would mean an inevitable clash with several large corporations — Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Goldman Sachs, Peabody Coal and SSA Marine — who are behind the proposed export terminal. Wording of the ordinance (which is to be posted Friday morning) essentially nullifies elements of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, placing its faith instead with the Declaration of Independence and its individual rights.
If adopted in November, the initiative could cause severe conflicts for the city itself, which could be forced to defend it against deep-pockets corporations. Bird said an organization that has worked on similar efforts — the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — would help the city with its legal burden, but the matter of liability may be expected to surface in the campaign.
The initiative lists 22 different dangers or threats from the movement of coal through the city; speakers urged union members and others who have been supporting the terminal to consider the long-range impact of the export terminal and its associated trains. “Try and balance the needs of right now with the long-term effects of this project,” urged John Morgan, a retired construction carpenter.
Although smaller than the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point outside Bellingham, the St. Helens applications would be significant. Applicants claim the exports would add 100 jobs, and a longshore-union spokesman endorsed the project Wednesday night (Jan. 25).
Columbia Riverkeeper executive director Brett VanderHeuvel, who has attempted without success to obtain records of the Port of St. Helens’ negotiations, charged, “This was a deal behind closed door.” In a statement Thursday, he added, “Apparently, the Port already had lease agreements drafted prior to informing the public about the possibility of coal projects.” Port interest in coal has been covered in news accounts, but specifics of the proposals were not aired before the Wednesday night meeting.
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