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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.

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Native Americans joined early opponents from Bellingham in what had started out as a controlled exercise in which SSA Marine lined up local political leaders, a Chamber of Commerce and labor unions in Northwest Washington in 2010 to support construction  — and jobs — at Ferndale. Opposition began to build in early 2011 when coal was announced as the primary client for a "bulk commodity terminal."  Opponents started to organize around the idea of 18 coal trains a day (arriving and leaving the terminal), running alongside some of Bellingham's best real estate and a future downtown waterfront development.

The issue went regional when a coalition of environmental and sustainability groups, most notably the Sierra Club and Climate Solutions, joined with groups of physicians, San Juan Islands protectors of the Salish Sea and people along the railroad tracks to form Power Past Coal, the folks in the red T-shirts at the meetings. They held scoping-preparation sessions and doubtless generated a large share of the 9,000 or so written or online comments delivered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County, co-lead agencies for environmental review.

SSA Marine countered by blanketing Whatcom County with a staff of young men ringing doorbells and distributing literature; they in turn generated the pro-terminal crowd at a Ferndale hearing, where they outnumbered opponents. Proponents also reached deeply into the deep pockets of corporate interests that stand to do quite well by selling coal to China: Goldman Sachs, part owner of SSA Marine; Peabody Coal, the nation's largest; and BNSF Railway, which has a monopoly on the transport. An advertising and public-relations effort called Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports has spent heavily on television commercials and other advertising in the region, pushing the jobs the terminal will attract. BNSF continues to advertise prominently on public television with appealing images of freight trains.

The coal debate has been good business for Seattle advertising and public relations firms, as documented by Sightline's Eric de Place, who cites several of the major firms in Seattle — some with strong "green" connections — as profiting from the tussle. "By taking money from Big Coal, these firms — many of which have carefully groomed reputations for sustainability and public-interest work — have themselves become a part of the coal industry," de Place comments.

We didn't see the CEOs of the corporate partners at the meetings — not even Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns BNSF. Instead, they relied on labor representatives to make the case for new jobs to boost the economy. The case resonated in Ferndale, where the school district stands to gain about $1.4 million a year from the project and where workers at the terminal would be expected to spend paychecks. Only a few miles to the south, however, the argument played less well in Bellingham, which gets no money for its schools from Cherry Point and has tried to push green jobs and tourism. Union leaders tried valiantly in other forums, but had little help from walk-on speakers; they rest their case with the agency folk, who promise to review all comments before setting a scoping parameter.

That process will probably take at least until March. Agency representatives acknowledged Thursday that they won't be the final decision-makers. "This won't be done at the staff level," commented the Corps of Engineers' Randel Perry. Ecology's Jeannie Summerhays has consulted with her boss and she, in turn, expects to talk to the new governor, Jay Inslee. At Whatcom County, Tyler Schroeder talks with County Executive Jack Louws.

Politics will ultimately enter the decision. Inslee is a Democrat who made a reputation as a climate-change hawk, but he has been largely silent on coal exports. The Everett Herald, in an editorial, called on him to take leadership against the coal shipments, but in an environmental-policy article Inslee wrote for Publicola the topic was notably absent. In like manner, re-elected President Barack Obama talks climate change but has not engaged coal directly. Whether the White House would intervene with the Corps of Engineers on something like scoping for an environmental review is problematic, although its Council on Environmental Quality is known to be monitoring the case. Both Inslee and Obama picked up dollars and votes from environmentalists.


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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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