Coal Wars: Port opponents make big use of access to information

When Scoop Jackson wrote the Environmental Protection Act, no one could have imagined how the Internet would empower activists to dig into something like coal exports.
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Supporters hoist anti-coal signs for a speaker at Friday Harbor.

When Scoop Jackson wrote the Environmental Protection Act, no one could have imagined how the Internet would empower activists to dig into something like coal exports.

Second article in a three-part series

Scoop Jackson didn’t have the Internet in mind when he wrote the Environmental Protection Act in 1969, but that marvelous invention has dramatically changed the way the Washington senator’s legacy has operated. The democratizing of information has given community activists a shot at the Big Guys, who always have had access to data.

Witness the activists' and community members' multi-faceted attacks on plans to export coal from Pacific Northwest ports, in thousands of comments to public agencies charged with the environmental review of Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT), proposed at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.

Most of the 16,000 “uniquely worded” — not form letters — comments from GPT opponents are laced with footnotes and references that to studies and information in 1969 would have been available only to big companies and big environmental groups. Today, small groups and individuals can back their talk with citations from eminent experts. In the case of the coal ports, it could be a game-changer.

Terminal opponents must move the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) beyond the Gateway site in order to introduce impacts such as ship and rail traffic, global warming, and health threats. Terminal backers want a narrower review, as we discussed in Part I of this series.

With so many opposition groups and such a range of concerns terminal backers have been playing “whack-a-mole,” with new issues cropping up daily and threatening to bury their argument of more jobs and taxes to support local schools and governments. Opposition scoping comments range from tiny endangered herring at Cherry Point to ship traffic to Asia through Unimak Pass on the Bering Sea. Somehow, the agencies must draw a line.

Whatcom Docs, 212 physicians in Whatcom and Skagit counties, even urged an additional review, a Health Impact Assessment, quoting a federal study that “the Puget Sound region ranks in the country’s top 5% of risk for exposure to toxic air pollution, with risks including cancer, heart disease, lung damage, and nerve damage." “This is not a hypothetical case,” the physicians assert, “The data indicates that adding additional large sources of (trains’) diesel and particulate matter pollution in the Puget Sound region would exacerbate human health problems that are already documented to be present.“

The docs are talking trains, a popular target of GPT opponents that goes well beyond GPT’s boundaries.

Opponents do not believe BNSF Railway can increase coal traffic without serious impacts on local communities. “The addition of the massive increases of coal train traffic is likely to present significant adverse impacts on other users of the rail line, including grain and fruit shippers, intermodal users, ports, industries, aircraft manufacturers and passenger rail — all of whom are critically dependent on timely and affordable access to the rail system,” states Earthjustice, an environmental law firm speaking for several organizations. “There will be mitigation costs for structures such as overpasses, tunnels, and railroad crossings. The EIS must also address whether the public will be expected to bear any costs for infrastructure constructed for private benefits. Federal and State Governments commonly bear a significant share of the costs of freight rail capacity improvement projects.”

Federal regulations typically limit a railroad company’s contribution to these safety projects to 5 percent of the cost.

Similar concerns, but related to ocean shipping, are raised by Friends of the San Juans. Director Stephanie Buffum’s comment has the requisite scientific citations, but raises a broader issue for islanders: their reason for being islanders.” “Maintaining the health, integrity and natural beauty of these islands in the Sound is critical to preserving our local and regional economy. However, the GPT project may impact an array of topics that could threaten both the way of life for residents [and] tourists and the reasons both groups are here, the remarkable natural environment of this portion of the Salish Sea.”

Quality of life is potentially a slippery slope, of course, part of a “socioeconomic” section of the EIS. But Buffum’s comments are echoed by Bellingham’s Community Food Co-op, a local institution with $29 million in 2012 sales. And the group ties its concerns to the kind of pollution clean-up that Scoop Jackson's law aimed to address: “A healthy and vibrant downtown Bellingham with continued focus on high-density population growth centers is of significant importance to us. The city of Bellingham has spent many years cleaning up past industrial pollution and (GPT) could irreparably damage this positive headway. This reversal of the city’s character would have serious negative economic impacts.”

Opposition groups did not limit critiques to area-wide impacts; ReSources, the sustainability organization that has led opposition in Whatcom County, went after the coal that would be stockpiled at Cherry Point. “The Project would represent an experiment: North American’s largest coal export terminal would represent the first time that up to 2.9 million metric tons of highly combustible Powder River Basin coal has ever been stored at an export terminal at one time,” ReSources commented. Proponents, “provide very little information about dust control and the feasibility of using wetting as a method to control coal dust, in particular given PRB coal's high friability and known propensity to spontaneously combust.”         

“The true costs of coal are daunting,” asserted Sightline’s Eric dePlace. “Researchers at the Harvard Medical School recently pegged the annual cost of coal — including harm to public health, mining damage, pollution, and subsidies — at $345 billion per year in the United States alone. A 2010 report from the National Research Council finds that the non-climate damages from burning coal are 20 times higher than the damages from natural gas. The Academy of Sciences determined that US coal burning results in $60 billion per year in health costs alone.”        

Three sentences, three citations; the experts are no longer the property of big money or higher education. They are in play for all to use; in some ways they now set the rules of play. It isn’t Scoop Jackson’s EPA.

In Part III we look at how public agencies are weighing in. 


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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.