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KCTS 'Coal' documentary gets smacked by timing problem but stands up well

Too bad the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wasn't watching before it declared that climate change will be off the table for its environmental review of coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
A new KCTS documentary examines the debate around exporting coal through Northwest ports.

A new KCTS documentary examines the debate around exporting coal through Northwest ports. Photo: Michael Werner

Politicians dread an “October surprise,” a last-minute event that changes their campaign. Television documentary producers dread the time between final production and the broadcast date.

“Coal,” an impressive 30-minute production by KCTS and EarthFix, had its “October surprise” this week, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared that climate change was off the table for its environmental review of coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

Climate change is at the heart of “Coal,” rightfully so in my view, and even if the Corps doesn’t plan on viewing the documentary, the program deserves to have a large audience in the region. (The first KCTS 9 airing is at 7:30 p.m. tonight, June 19; a full schedule for rebroadcasts on KCTS and Yakima's KYVE is here. The show can be watched online here.)

The documentary deals with SSA Marine’s proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham; it would handle 52 million tons of exports a year, of which 48 million tons would be Powder River Basin coal bound for Asia.

A winsome 12-year-old named Rachel Howell put it better than any of the adults in the program: “My generation will pay a higher price for the global warming than you do. This is the future that you’re creating for us and this isn’t the future that we want.” Later in the program she adds, “You only have one lifetime and if you stink it up with coal and you ruin it and you make global warming bigger, you’ll go away, but the stuff you do won’t. And my generation has to deal with the generation that’s burning coal and we didn’t do anything wrong and yet we still have deal with the problem.”

Rachel is one of several compelling speakers in the program; there are no politicians or agency heads, no “spokespersons” and no complex scientific or economic presentations. When I first saw Rachel, my reaction was “stereotype;” her parents are prototypical “greenies”; both work for environmental organizations. But they don’t appear; the documentary team found Rachel at the Seattle meeting on the scope of the Corps' environmental review, and the youngster is good. She talks in a language we all can understand and I think she speaks for a lot of young people.

Young people, women and college graduates are rapidly shifting in their views on the coal-export question; in a poll announced today (June 19), regional support for the terminals dropped from 55 percent to 41 percent in the last year; opposition increased from 27 percent to 36 percent.

One of the tricks in producing documentaries—I did more than a dozen for King Broadcasting three decades ago—is to tell a story through the voices of others, in everyday language that doesn’t talk down to an audience. Filmmakers Katie Campbell and Michael Werner do that and, although they may be criticized by those who want more complex data or a televised Power Point, this is a good product.

It is meticulously balanced, and understandable to the neophyte. Charts, graphs and dodgy economic estimates are largely missing. This is a primer, not a definitive study. EarthFix on its excellent website provides much detail for viewers attracted to this complex topic.

What ultimately emerges, however, is a dissonance that reflects the reality of the terminal debate: the opposing sides really operate in separate universes and they approach the debate in totally different ways.

Proponents, effectively represented by SSA Marine’s Bob Watters and articulate blue-collar workers, focus on the here-and-now: longshoreman Darren Williams understandably wants a job nearer his Bellingham home, miner Phil Dillinger and train engineer Sharraim Allen like their jobs and have no concerns about handling coal. Jobs and exports are good, and the terminals will obey environmental regulations. Coal will be mined and burned in any event. Let’s get on with it.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 2:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Sir, first, both of your posts today are excellent. Well written, to the point.

Second, I oppose exporting coal. I think the twelve year old girl you cite has the right of it.

BUT. THIRD: It was never very likely - likely at all that the Corps, using NEPA, or the State, with SEPA,
was going to look at the issue of "What happens when you burn coal in China?"

The legal SCOPE of these two laws does not stretch that far. Or at least, hasn't stretched that far under any prededents I'm aware of under US or Washington State Law.

This issue boils down to two things: Elections in Whatcom County, and PUBLIC OPINION.

POLITICAL ACTION could change the outcome. But nothing will change if folks expect 'someone else'
to do the heavy lifting.

Ross

Posted Thu, Jun 20, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

So Miss Rachel and her parents like to go skiing weekly? What carbon load does that put into the atmosphere, just for recreation? And she is NOT in wilderness, she is in a developed ski area.

Granger

Posted Thu, Jun 20, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

".. the complexity of the Georgia Strait herring run, the effects of shipping noise on whales "

I think I have read that whales and some other sea mammals may be bothered by boats, especially power boats. But if you raise that as an issue against the coal hulls aren't you obligated to apply that reasoning to ferries, tour boats, pleasure craft, container ships, etc. ? the threat of environmental degradation is real and germane but we should apply this concern across the board and not just to activities we don't happen to like.

kieth

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