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Growing coal-port opposition creates tough choices for regulators

Thousands of people turned out for seven regional meetings about plans to export coal for burning in China. Officials must now decide whether to tackle the concerns about train traffic and global warming.
A sea of red T-shirts, the uniform of coalport opponents, dominated the Seattle meeting.

A sea of red T-shirts, the uniform of coalport opponents, dominated the Seattle meeting. Floyd McKay

Mayor Mike McGinn, flanked by standing city council members (l to r) Jean Godden, Richard Conlin and Mike O'Brien, tells officials at a meeting on coal ports that he supports an area-wide study of the impacts.

Mayor Mike McGinn, flanked by standing city council members (l to r) Jean Godden, Richard Conlin and Mike O'Brien, tells officials at a meeting on coal ports that he supports an area-wide study of the impacts. Floyd McKay

Lummi Nation member Justin Finkbonner tells a scoping meeting of issues with Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Lummi Nation member Justin Finkbonner tells a scoping meeting of issues with Gateway Pacific Terminal. Floyd McKay

They sat patiently and listened, sometimes writing notes to themselves, never talking back as several hundred speakers and audiences totaling over 8,000 people railed about railroads, jabbered about jobs, castigated coal, fretted about fish and calculated climate-change effects on future generations of Washingtonians.

After seven "scoping meetings" for the largest of five coal-export terminals proposed in the Northwest closed Thursday night in Seattle, the agency representatives who sat through 24 hours of verbal testimony could only look forward to reading several thousand more online comments to be filed before the Jan. 21 conclusion of the scoping process. The heart of their decision is whether the environmental review for a proposed coal-export facility at Ferndale, north of Bellingham, should look broadly at the environmental issues for the Northwest around exports to China, as opponents want, or focus on the single facility.

They were weary but unbowed Thursday as a red-shirted crowd of coalport opponents picked up their Power Past Coal signs and filed out of the Washington Convention Center in Seattle, some to participate in a noisy informal rally on the street outside.

There's a lot of youth in the anti-coal movement, and energy in their comments having a lot to do about what kind of a future they want to grow into, but it was the gray heads in most of the seven scoping meetings that put the meat on the table with data based on science ranging from marine biology to air quality and climate change.

The mix kept the meetings interesting and the assault of data made it harder for supporters of the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed at Cherry Point north of Bellingham to offer much beyond a Jobs, Jobs, Jobs mantra. Most of the supporters were from longshore, construction and rail unions that stand to gain the hundreds (or thousands, terminal developers claim) that go with the $664 million project.

Terminal supporters had an uphill battle from the start by the very nature of the scoping meetings; the meetings were called to allow citizens to alert regulating agencies to issues they want studied in a lengthy environmental review process. That purpose puts the ball in the opponents' court and calls forth all the negatives of the proposal. The best option for supporters is to try to promote economic impacts — jobs and taxes, mostly benefitting the northwest part of Whatcom County — and try to assure regulators the terminal will be up to snuff in the latest technology. Backers wore green T-shirts, but except in Ferndale, major beneficiary of the terminal, they were largely lost in the Red Sea of their foes.

By the time the meetings concluded, the actual project — an SSA Marine development on an industrial site that already holds two oil refineries and an aluminum plant and has been zoned industrial for decades — was almost submerged by larger issues that it brings to the table, because its major commodity will be coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Coal is in bad odor these days and the commodity and its thousand-mile rail transport have come to dominate the debate.

Perhaps the only participants narrowly focused on the site itself are young and articulate members of the Lummi Nation, whose ancestors lived, fished and hunted at Cherry Point. Some are buried there, and SSA Marine touched a hot wire when company representatives carried out some unauthorized clearing on the site in an area the Lummis claim holds the bones of their forebears. The prospect of a burial site "under a coal conveyor belt," in the scornful words of Lummi Jay Julius, has been only one spark for younger tribal members, who are increasingly replacing tribal elders at these public meetings.

They've been joined at other hearings by spokespersons for other tribes. The young people are angry and they are effective, a developer's worst nightmare because of federal laws and regulations protecting historic and cultural sites. The Lummis opened their campaign shortly before the scoping process began, and SSA Marine quickly countered that it was sensitive to the cultural aspects of Cherry Point; the Lummis were not mollified.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent reporting, Mr. McKay. Thank you.

One point you made was that "The heart of their decision is whether the environmental review for a proposed coal-export facility at Ferndale, north of Bellingham, should look broadly at the environmental issues for the Northwest around exports to China, as opponents want, or focus on the single facility." I'd like to expand on that topic as several speakers did that evening.

Several speakers made clear that the dichotomy you called out is a false one, though the project proponents can never admit that. Climate change impacts due to burning coal already include Puget Sound acidification impacts on our shellfish industry, Pine Bark Beetle infestations in our E Washington forests, altered timing of our snowmelt (and consequent impacts on salmon runs and hydropower production), and on and on. To categorize impacts as "single facility," "regional," or "global" is to make a distinction without a difference. We no longer have the luxury of approaching climate change as an academic subject. It is with us, and our actions can magnify or mitigate it.

It is also clear that if the Environmental Impact Statement resulting from this process makes such a distinction, it will be challenged in court.

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

The Magnuson Act of 1977 declared Puget Sound a special zone under the Marine Mammals Act.

Does coal shipping next to and in Puget Sound have a credible impact on marine mammals? If so, coal shipping near these waters should be limited or stopped by existing or new federal legislation.

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 1:28 p.m. Inappropriate


Good article Mr. McKay.

You said "Opponents remind an observer of the coalition that drove the Obama campaign in November: They are young, well-educated and willing to sacrifice economic growth for a livable environment."

I'm not convinced stopping the coal port and trains will sacrifice economic growth. If you honestly account for the lost productivity due to waiting for trains, higher health care costs from coal, losses to tourism and green jobs from the coal trains and the money that will go into them instead of green jobs, possible negative impact on Puget Sound fisheries, and more, Will the coal trains and coal ports really have a net positive economic impact? My guess is no. But I asked in my written comments that they study this question.

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

If you have any environmental, public health or other issue that you think the agencies should consider in their environmental review please do not hesitate to submit your ideas, comments, or concerns to http://www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/get-involved/comment by January 21, 2013.

Please encourage everyone you know to submit a comment by that deadline, especially anyone with specialized environmental science, biology, chemistry, geology, medical science or legal backgrounds. Commenters can be any age 3-100 (an interesting assignment for a kid to do on Christmas vacation). Do not worry about having to have an original idea, the review board considers may consider the number of people repeating specific points or areas of concern. You do not need to be a Washington State or even a U.S. resident to comment.

You can learn more about the public health risks associated with this project at www.seattlelung.com

Bill234

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

If the coal terminal is built, the coal shipped through there would represent about 3% of China's demand. If they don't get it from us, they'll get it from somewhere else.

I am far more concerned about the effect on transportation 18 mile+-long daily trains would have. In Bellingham particularly, where the tracks run pretty much through the middle of town, access to parks in particular and everything else generally (especially the Georgia-Pacific mill site) would be seriously negatively affected... and BNSF would be under no obligation to help mitigate these impacts. THAT's a far worse problem than any possible environmental issue...

orino

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Who among us was aware that Buffett/Bershire Hathaway owns BNSF?

Charlton2

Posted Wed, Dec 19, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Buffett also is boss of MidAmerican Energy, which mines coal and operates 37 power plants, including the five largest greenhouse gas emitters in the state of Iowa. His record also includes the infamous quote from "Barbarians at the Gate" and "Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition" that he made to another Wall Street hedge fund manager in 1994 when he was on the R. J. Reynolds board: "I'll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty." The corporate chairman who was still selling cigarettes to poor children 50 years after the lung cancer-cigarette tie became a public issue is still promoting asthma and autism, global warming, and ocean acidification from coal 120 years after Arrhenius. Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. promoted the greatest killer of men and promotes global warming.

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 3:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Wyoming/Montana coal industry moguls have no intention of operating a shipping terminal at inconveniently distant sites past Bellingham and Coos Bay Oregon. By rail, the only port they consider serious is Longview, by barge, there and St Helens. They are building an army of bi-state support from obedient wage-slaves and glibly terrorizing whole communities affected by disruptive and dangerous rail transport.

The BNSF is nearing a line in the sand. Crossing that line may cost them their lease of public right-of-way use of the rail bridge across the Columbia River and in North Portland trackage. BNSF supports a proposed oval track rail facility on Hayden Island to off-load and ship import cars east. Restricting the use of the main RR crossing the Columbia and risking complete closure derailment at spurs is ludicrous. The North Portland docks where off-loading import car facilities are underutilized should be upgraded to increase capacity, improve operations and reduce toxic runoff into the river.

The Big Boys of coal, oil, cars and freight rail don't give a damn. Real Americans must send these misanthropic tyrants a message: America, Love it or lose your corporate lease.

Wells

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 9:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe someone can clear this up for me.

Are opponents fighting:

The use of coal,

Or

Train traffic?

JimCusick

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 10:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Both

louploup

Posted Mon, Dec 17, 11:08 p.m. Inappropriate

What if train traffic was due to grain exports, or retail product shipments (preferably exports, but most commonly now, imports)?

The Grain and Intermodal trains have pretty much the same impact.

JimCusick

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 1:37 a.m. Inappropriate

They're just "progressive" NIMBYs

NotFan

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

@JimCusick
That is a silly question and purely hypothetical. And consequently entirely not germane to the discussion. There is no feasible way for grain or other bulk commodities to obtain the scale of bulk coal exports.

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Even shipping grain and other produce by rail for export can be a restriction upon optimal use of these northwest railways. All nations should establish and maintain a food supply. When a nation ceases adequate production of food, it becomes a colony utterly dependent upon host nations for survival. In the case of fully developed nations like the USA, household commodities, appliances, motor vehicles become the equivalent of food to 3rd world nations that creates a similar colonial dependence upon imports. The USA is becoming a colony of wage slaves subservient to international corporatization, a process led by the repulsive, disgusting state of Washington and Emperor Bill Gates Jr.

Wells

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

@Pythagoras
"That is a silly question and purely hypothetical."

It's not hypothetical. Both the Intermodal and the Unit Grain trains regularly reach the same length as the coal trains.

"... mile+-long daily trains ..." (quote from orino, above) already exist, and regularly pass through the Puget Sound region.

"And consequently entirely not germane to the discussion. There is no feasible way for grain or other bulk commodities to obtain the scale of bulk coal exports."

What is happening now is twofold. The economy has cause Intermodal traffic to drop, and the drought this year has caused a fall-off in grain shipments.

This is why the railroad is pursuing the coal business, to replace lost revenue.

When the other commodities return to normal, then it will be the number of trains that will increase.

It's why I want to clear up what the 'fight' is against.

If you feel that rail traffic offends you, then say that, but don't muddy up the discussion with the real problem, that coal and any other fossil fuel, when burnt, is inneficient and a contributes to a host of pollution issues.

And No, I don't work for BNSF.

JimCusick

Posted Wed, Dec 19, 7:28 a.m. Inappropriate

@JimCusick
Yes, it is a hypothetical. In order for your argument to be valid, you'd need to show/demonstrate that there is a market or capability to expand rail traffic to the extent that the coal train traffic is expected to be.

The current traffic north out of Seattle is 40-45 trains per day. The SSA Marine (Goldman Sachs)/BNSF (Warren Buffet) /Peabody Coal proposal for Cherry Point, at minimum, increases that one-way traffic by 9 trains per day (one way) or 25%. And there is a potential for there to be significantly more based the expected capacity of the facility.

We can agree though that the railroads prefer intermodal and bulk commodities due to their profitability. One concern though is that this preference and over-reliance on longer cars will penalize the small businesses in the region who would be squeezed out.

From a report on the impact of coal trains on Seattle by Gibson Traffic Consultants explains:

"The 2006 “Washington State Rail Capacity & System Needs Study identifies a key issue affecting local business and Port access to rail shipments for their products. The report states:

'The Railroads Are Focusing on High-Volume and Long-Haul Services, But the State’s Industrial and Agricultural Shippers Also Need Low Volume and Short-Haul Services. Long-haul intermodal container trains and long-haul unit grain trains moving to and from Washington State’s ports are the least complex and the most profitable for the Class I railroads to operate. As a result, the railroads have reoriented their operations to accommodate this business. But many Washington State shippers are low-volume carload shippers who generate only a few dozen carloads a week or a month, and they are being priced out of the rail market.'"

[Ref: http://www.powerpastcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/GTC-Seattle-Traffic-Report-SO-small.pdf]

So from a local economy perspective, the negative effect on local business could be a net loss and any positive economic benefits would go to outside corporate interests.

I'm definitely against this proposal based upon the fact that any business associated with coal has implications for global warming. But one should not simplify the discussion and draw firm demarcation lines based upon that basis alone. This proposal is not good for creating a positive businesses environment in the communities along the tracks as well.

Posted Tue, Dec 18, 4:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Some background information on coal use:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-18/coal-demand-forecast-to-rise-2-6-a-year-through-2017-iea-says.html

Hint: it ain't going away

kieth

Posted Wed, Dec 19, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Since coal aint going away, it would seem Pythagoras and those who oppose coal would better use their efforts towards funding research and innovation for not follil based fuels.

It's impractical to say we can use coal but you guys can't.

Posted Fri, Dec 21, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Nobody reports the impacts of the 1,000 foot long ships, or the impact on the already 95% loss of Herring from the existing shipping operations in the area. Herring are a keystone species, and significant food for salmon.
Where is the Puget Sound Partnership on this issue! I thought they were about the "science" ... Despite several challenges to Floyd McKay he continues to repeat the same concerns over and over... Focused on human impact, and impacts on humans.. What about the Orcas! How many more giant ships filling up the channels can they tolerate?
There is no mitigating the impacts on Herring and Orcas, and water quality of the Sound. Biologists feel that this terminal will finish off the Herring, once 40% of all Herring in the Sound. Nor has anyone mentioned that the Puget Sound is the most polluted body of water in America since 1993. Or that our Orcas are the most polluted whales in the world. I'll ask you again Floyd - WTF

Blake

Posted Fri, Dec 21, 11:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Blake: Crosscut has called attention to marine issues, including fishing and the impact of large ships, on several occasions and only some of the articles bear my byline. You can access them by using our search engine. If that's too much trouble, here is a sampling from four different writers. Enjoy.

http://crosscut.com/2012/10/24/coal-ports/111117/coal-port-marine-traffic-export-san-juans-canada/
http://crosscut.com/2012/11/13/coal-ports/111481/coal-port-testimony-hearing-public-voices/
http://crosscut.com/2012/09/21/coal-ports/110640/lummi/
http://crosscut.com/2012/03/06/environment/22011/Why-new-invasion-tankers-threatens-Northwest-water/
http://crosscut.com/2011/10/28/environment/21354/Big-Coal-meets-Cherry-Points-tiny-herring/

Posted Mon, Dec 24, 2:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Jobs, tax income, corporate investments, Indian cultural concerns, global warming, ocean acidification, fish, air quality and rail traffic. All issues worthy of study. So let’s include the fiscal interest of the U. S. including GDP, balance of trade, funding federal entitlements, energy security. I wish all the folks in red shirts would work as hard on creating new wealth to support the financial health of this country. The youth in the seven hearings should be concerned how they will generate the wealth it will take to maintain their lifestyle while also supporting the gray and graying hairs in the same audience who are unlikely to be willing to sacrifice what they believe they have earned in Social Security and Medicare support. Wealth comes from adding value to natural resources and intellectual creativity. Both are needed to continue to prosper. Questions raised by the coal port should not simply be answered with the reasons not to utilize the coal resource, but be balanced with responses that actually answers the question: How else will we generate the productivity that supports our national needs?

PJHeide

Posted Mon, Dec 24, 3:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Do the health impacts of pollution from burning coal count as "wealth?"

Steve E.

Posted Mon, Dec 24, 3:29 p.m. Inappropriate

"Opponents remind an observer of the coalition that drove the Obama campaign in November: They are young, well-educated and willing to sacrifice economic growth for a livable environment; they are joined by retirees with hefty professional and scientific resumes and a majority of their strongest speakers are women. Sound familiar?"

I'm increasingly reminded of the anti-nuke campaigns in Washington in the late 70's and early 80s. While the WPPSS house of cards ultimately went down because of its financial problems, the anti-nuke movement was instrumental in creating the social environment that took those economic problems seriously.

So it is with coal. Coal is on the rocks in the US. Even without possible required climate mitigation (i.e. carbon taxes of one form or another), coal just can't compete with natural gas, wind, or conservation and efficiency. And its not just a matter of whether or not new plants get built (they aren't, because natural gas is so much cheaper), but whether old plants get retrofitted or closed. Faced with (finally) complying with stricter emissions standards (Romney lost, after all), closure and switching to alternatives looks more appealing by the day. The result of these pressures is that the coal mining industry is increasingly desperate to develop new markets just so it can stay even. And the anti-coal movement in the PNW is in an ideal position to keep that from happening.

Practically speaking, to stay alive the industry has to be able to export huge volumes to Asia. If we stop that it will have huge ripple effects:
1) In the US, its clout will decrease rapidly as its use as fuel decreases, since there will be no other justification (such as exports) for its political clout.
2) Asian markets will either have to use more expensive coal from elsewhere or substitute alternatives (natural gas, bio-gas, wind, solar, conservation, efficiency). And even if coal from elsewhere is used, less will be burned. This is really basic economics: if the price rises, less is consumed.

So, we may be the "tip of the spear" that plays a critical part in ridding the US of King Coal's longtime political and economic power.

Steve E.

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