Monday Scan: Mother nature at risk in Northwest, Alaska

Coal port fights are breaking out all over Washington and Oregon. And a mine proposal threatens rich salmon runs.
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Washington Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D)

Coal port fights are breaking out all over Washington and Oregon. And a mine proposal threatens rich salmon runs.

The Seattle Times' Craig Welch provides a wide-angle analysis of the Northwest's evolving role as the center of gravity for coal exports to east Asia. (Crosscut's Bob SimmonsFloyd McKay, Daniel Jack Chasan, and other writers have tracked the issue since its inception, with a  focus on Bellingham's Cherry Point.) An analogue in terms of volume may be the Great Japan Earthquake of 1923 when ports in Everett and Seattle shipped raw materials en masse to rebuild Tokyo. However, in an age of hightened awareness about global warming, China's humongous appetite for coal looks quenchless. 

"Physicians fret about an explosion of locomotive exhaust, while mayors grumble about the potential for long traffic-snarling trains. Washington state fears 1,200 new barge trips on the Columbia River could spark more accidents and marine-vessel groundings. Tribes worry that spilled coal could poison aquatic food webs," Welch writes. "But as the federal government begins its first lengthy review of plans to ship coal through Northwest ports, it's not clear how — or if — the feds will weigh in on perhaps the most far-reaching issue: the potential effect new markets for coal could have on greenhouse-gas emissions." 

The issue is best reduced to a traditional 5-7-5 haiku: 

Bellingham tree frog

Black gold flows like a river

China awakens

Because of its fecund, near-otherworldly salmon runs, Alaska's Bristol Bay has a tangible impact on Washington's economy. So why plant a poisoned tree (in this case, the proposed Pebble mine) so close to the garden of Eden? As the's Joel Connelly writes, "The Bristol Bay fishery amounts to $480 million each year and supports 14,000 full- and part-time jobs.  As an example, the Kvichak River is the world’s greatest producer of sockeye salmon, the Nushagak River the fourth-largest source of Chinook salmon in the world."  

Connelly gets his paws on the Environmental Protection Agency's preliminary assessment of the proposed copper and gold mine. It makes for sober reading. "Elimination or blocked streams under the minimum and maximum mine footprints would result in the loss of 55 to 87.5 miles of possible spawning or rearing habitats for coho, Chinook, and sockeye salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden."  

With Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell in the vanguard of the anti-Pebble-mine effort, Alaska lawmakers might weigh tit-for-tat revenge by laboring to block Northwest coal exports. Think of it as a win-win (at least from Mother Nature's perspective.) 

Republicans may take control of the state Senate this fall, and the two key races are both seats that represent parts of Snohomish County (Republicans only need to pick up three seats to regain the majority.) The challenge for Camano Island's Mary Margaret Haugen and Bothell's Rosemary McAuliffe may have less to do with issues and performance than voter fatigue of long-serving politicians. As the Herald's Jerry Cornfield writes, "November is a ways away. While strategists in both parties are touting the talents of their candidates, they said they won't be surprised if the philosophical division seen in 2012 carries over another year."

What happens when private equity crosses with public pensions? Oregon was one of the first to experiment with private equity and most public employees (at least for now) appear delighted. As the Oregonian's Ted Sickinger writes, "Oregon was the pioneer public investor in this asset class. And the state remains one of the largest, after pumping tens of billions into these partnerships, which invest in corporate buyouts, real estate, distressed debt and startup companies."

It also may be too much of a good thing. As Sickinger writes, "Oregon won't realize results for years from its alternative investment binge before the financial crisis. The state is a participant in most of the marquee buyouts of the era, and many big real estate deals. Based on limited data available, some look too expensive in hindsight with too much debt. Fund returns could be low, some negative." 

Lastly, art historian Gayle Clemans has an instructive review of the Seattle Center's new Chihuly Garden and Glass in this morning's Seattle Times. A fine place for the aesthetically inclined, but a raw experience for we happy few who still long for the Fun Forest. 

Link Summary

Seattle Times, "Fights brewing over massive coal export plans for the Northwest", "Bristol Bay salmon: EPA lists what a big mine could do"

The Herald,  "GOP pins state senate hopes on two seats"

Oregonian, "Oregon PERS: Private equity ivestments pose an unclear future" 

Seattle Times, "Highlights--and low points--of Chihuly Garden and Glass"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson