Coal ports are bad idea for both Washington and China

Guest Opinion: The proposed coal terminals across the Northwest are a bad idea for communities on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.


December 13, 2012.

Editor's Note: On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that the city will commission a study of the economic impacts of adding 18 coal trains to the daily load of train traffic that passes through Seattle. This afternoon, at 4 p.m, there will be a public hearing on the coal trains issue at the Washington State Convention Center. Crosscut also welcomes other perspectives on this issue.

As leaders of locally-based water quality organizations in both Washington state and China, we fight every day to protect the health of our respective watersheds. We are linked by our affiliation through the Waterkeeper Alliance and now by a common threat: a massive planned expansion of dirty coal, mined from Montana and Wyoming and shipped to Asia through five proposed Northwest ports. To safeguard our communities, the current scoping process must reflect the true environmental and human health costs of extracting, transporting and burning the dirty fuel.

Coal is the most destructive and dirtiest of all carbon-based fuels. Its extraction, burning and even its transport come at a terrible cost in toxic pollution, human health and climate change. This cost is borne out by increases in cancer, asthma, lung disease and neurological disorders in the affected communities. 

Coal is also the dirtiest of fossil fuels when it comes to climate change and its evil twin, ocean acidification, which threatens Washington’s shellfish industry and the entire ocean food web. There is simply no path to controlling carbon that involves continuing to burn coal at current levels. It is mathematically impossible, which is why expanding coal burning and exports is pure insanity.

Washington and Oregon recently became the first states in the U.S. to begin phasing out the burning of coal energy for electricity, a move that has been widely celebrated as a big win for clean air and healthy communities, and which will curtail the worsening effects of climate change.

Although China is rapidly industrializing, it is a world leader in the development and production of clean energy technology. Many of the wind turbines used to produce clean energy in the Northwest are produced there.

Despite mutual reputations for clean energy, the two regions have been thrust into the brewing battle around increasing the use of coal. Washington state is now poised to become the largest exporter of coal with the proposed construction of the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham, WA (one of five terminals planned for Washington and Oregon which would export 48 million tons of dirty coal annually).

China could fall victim to the cheap and subsidized energy source and end up as the recipient of the dirty fuel, with all the trappings of the localized and global pollution. 

In addition to the Waterkeeper programs in Puget Sound and China, the proposed coal route would affect watersheds as far away as Montana and including those in Idaho; Spokane, Wash; the Columbia River Basin and the Portland area. Waterkeeper Alliance has eight licensed Waterkeeper programs along the proposed route in the Pacific Northwest, another six in China and others in Bangladesh and India which could also end up as recipients of the coal. All are united in their opposition to the coal export terminals in order to protect water quality and the health of their communities.

If approved, the final insult to the Northwest would arrive in mercury pollution from new coal power plants in China and the Far East.  This would accelerate the current trends that have led health agencies to issue consumption warnings for many of the freshwater fish populations in the northwest due to mercury contamination.

The real losers would be anyone who cares about climate change, sea level rise, health in their communities and local jobs like those created by fishing, tourism and shellfish aquaculture.

Of course the powers that be are not asking the citizens of Washington or China for an up or down vote. Today, our challenge is to ensure that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) contains a sufficient scope to accurately reflect the true cost of coal and all of the impacts that the export of coal would create.

Everything should be on the table: toxic coal dust from open rail cars and the terminal itself, aerial pollution from powering over 6,000 trains and 900 ships annually, impacts on the critical Puget Sound food web and Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, where the terminal would be located, as well as global climate change, sea level rise and ocean acidification. We also need to plan for toxic clean-up at the terminal site, when we finally wise up and decide to stop foolishly burning the dirtiest fuel in spite of overwhelming evidence of its destruction.

Ultimately, we need to find another solution to our energy needs. In the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers must respect the concerns of the growing voices in the community that include parents, health advocates, climatologists, elected officials, tribes and fishing interests to ensure that the scope of the study reflects all of the impacts associated with coal export and not just the parts the industry wants it to consider.


Chris Wilke is Puget Soundkeeper and Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance in Seattle, WA. Hao Xin is Qiantang River Waterkeeper in Hangzhou, China


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Printed on January 25, 2015