Port opens door for China to get U.S. coal

As Northwest concerns build about global and local environmental issues in the Northwest, a small Oregon port gives its approval to exporting coal to burn in Chinese power plants.

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As Northwest concerns build about global and local environmental issues in the Northwest, a small Oregon port gives its approval to exporting coal to burn in Chinese power plants.

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.

The Kinder Morgan coal company told St. Helens port commissioners that a $200 million coal export dock could ship at least 15 million tons of coal, utilizing BNSF lines that would pass through Portland. Ambre Coal said its target is 8 million tons, using rail from Wyoming to the Port of Morrow, upstream from Portland on the Columbia, and then transferring the coal to barges that would pass through three major dams en route to St. Helens. As Crosscut reported in September, these proposals are only part of a massive effort to find a West Coast terminal for trans-shipment to Asia.

Ports at Longview and Grays Harbor in Washington and Coos Bay in southern Oregon are also interested. Only the Cherry Point terminal, however, could handle the giant Capesize ships that require a much deeper harbor than available at the other ports.

Those large ships are beginning to stir up concerns in the northern Puget Sound. Re Sources, a Bellingham sustainability group, has announced coal forums in the San Juan Islands Feb. 7-9, centering on shipping and health issues. Environmental attorney Jean Melious raises questions dealing with the herring stock and the danger of bunker-fuel spills, on her planning blog; and attorney Tom Ehrlichman, in a series of emails to Whatcom County, has raised issues dealing with shipping traffic and potential impact on Cherry Point’s important herring stock. The county and state are moving ahead with the hiring of environmental consultants to begin looking at plans of SSA Marine, although no official permit has been filed; Ehrlichman is protesting that public comments should be taken before the hiring proceeds.

SSA Marine, a Seattle-based terminal operator, submitted applications last summer to build the Washington export terminal at Cherry Point, targeting 48 million tons of coal and another 8 million tons of unspecified export commodities. Peabody Coal has already committed to half of the coal exports. The built-out terminal would bring an estimated 18 coal unit trains each day from Wyoming to Spokane, down the Columbia River Gorge and up the Western Washington rail line along Puget Sound through Seattle and other cities to the terminal north of Bellingham.

A new application is also expected this summer from Millennium Bulk Terminals, which wants to export coal from Longview but was forced to withdraw its application last summer when it ran afoul of environmental challenges.

Opposition to the terminals has centered on two forces: coal’s impact on climate change, a major environmental focus; and the effect on communities along the long rail line from long, heavy and noisy coal trains.

Power Past Coal last year collected some 30,000 signatures on petitions to Gov. Chris Gregoire and Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, objecting to the Cherry Point terminal and any coal exports from the state.

SSA Marine has not been idle, and is generating direct mail and even door-to-door contacts in Whatcom County, largely outside the City of Bellingham. A posting on the Facebook page of Northwest Jobs Alliance, which SSA is supporting, urges supporters to call or write county planners in support of the terminal. Whatcom County is co-lead agency on environmental review, with the State Department of Ecology. It is these agencies that are already lining up environmental consultants to view SSA Marine’s applications — although the applications could be months away from filing. Union leaders have been particularly active on behalf of the terminal; SSA Marine projects up to 430 direct jobs at the terminal, primarily longshoremen.

SSA Marine, not directly targeted by the initiative drive, has refrained from commenting on the initiative. Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the premier target, relies on past legal interpretations of its rights. Spokesperson Suann Lundsberg explained, “The Surface Transportation Board has exclusive jurisdiction over transportation by rail carriers, and rail carriers are required by federal law to provide rail service on reasonable request by shippers of regulated commodities such as coal.”

The different emphases of SSA Marine and Coal-Free-Bellingham also reflect the differing roles of the city and county — and to a degree their different populations. Whatcom County, as co-lead agency in the review process, ultimately decides whether the export terminal will be built, and under what conditions. The City of Bellingham, although it would be heavily impacted by rail traffic running through some of the city’s most valuable property, has no vote on the terminal — only its voice as 40 percent of the county’s population.

The Whatcom County Council, ultimately the local decision-maker, appears about evenly split in the outlook members bring to the table. Environmental and business concerns frequently wind up with a split council; the county outside Bellingham overwhelmingly supports Republicans and conservatives, the city supports Democrats and liberals. Thus the Coal-Free-Bellingham effort is directed at sending a powerful message to the County Council, via what sponsors hope is a favorable city vote next November.

Coal-Free-Bellingham evokes images of Occupy Wall Street, a 2011 Proposition 1 effort in Spokane, and a 2010 campaign that resulted in Pittsburgh banning natural-gas fracking beneath the Pennsylvania city. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has been involved in all three efforts.

All of these efforts assert local or natural rights that backers say overrule federal law when the natural environment is at stake. In Pittsburgh a similar organization convinced the city council to ban fracking; in the case of Spokane and Bellingham, the thrust will be through the initiative process.

In Spokane, nearly unanimous opposition from political and civic leaders and a large edge in campaign spending prevented passage of a far-reaching set of rights and challenges. The City Council passed a resolution opposing the initiative. Proposition 1 failed by a narrow margin, 29,867 to 28,842.

The Spokesman-Review summed up Proposition 1 as having four parts: “1. “Neighborhood residents have the right to determine the future of their neighborhoods.” 2. “The right to a healthy Spokane River and aquifer.” 3. “Employees have the right to constitutional protections in the workplace.” 4. “Corporate powers shall be subordinate to people’s rights.” An even more-sweeping proposal was handily defeated in 2009.

Spokane’s divisions are less about environmental concerns than they are part of a long-simmering complaint by community activists against downtown and corporate leaders, who are seen in some quarters as an elite that calls all the important shots in the city. The 2009 and 2011 initiatives may be linked to that concern, along with earlier battles over downtown redevelopment and the condition of the Spokane River.

Spokane is also a major railroad hub, and opponents of coal trains are gearing up to resist additional coal trains through the city. But the next two or three months will be focused on applications — and pushback — in Bellingham and the Columbia River ports of Longview and St. Helens. It is becoming increasingly clear that it will be a contentious process sure to last months and even years.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.