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.
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A new KCTS documentary examines the debate around exporting coal through Northwest ports.

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.

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.

Opponents, from the young Ms. Howell to physician Martin Donohoe and University of Washington scientist Dan Jaffe approach the issue holistically, and focus on coal and its legacy for Rachel’s generation. From a mountain-top research station, Jaffe is blunt: “If we don’t consider climate change in a proposal to export coal it means the game is over. Because once we are exporting millions of tons of coal to other people, there is no reason in the world anyone would enter into an agreement to reduce CO2. We’ve pretty much stacked the deck and climate lost, and we lost.”

Watters calls that argument a “slippery slope”: If extended to a product like Boeing aircraft, which produce greenhouse gases, America’s exports would be crippled.

A new face of Native Americans is shown. Jeremiah Jones is a young Lummi fisherman, articulate in explaining the importance of the fishery offshore from the proposed terminal. The Lummi and, to some extent other tribes in the region, may loom large in the final determination of Gateway Pacific.

There are always areas that could have been handled more skillfully; a rebuttal to a “the trains are coming anyway” argument, which is both illogical and probably erroneous, is handled only by a hyperlink to a Sightline Institute study. Both sides will argue for more detail for their views, but television is a finite medium, and much is lost in the pressure to hit an exact time limit. The documentary was financed by KCTS and a grant to EarthFix from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The “Coal” script is 4,000 words, only four times longer than this review. It’s simply impossible in that space to probe the complexity of the Georgia Strait herring run, the effects of shipping noise on whales or the toxicity of coal dust and diesel fumes, although there is discussion of the latter.

“Coal” really needed 60 minutes, but an extra half-hour is costly to produce and KCTS and EarthFix should be applauded for doing the work that the region’s commercial broadcasters and daily newspapers (with a few exceptions) have neglected. EarthFix is a consortium of public broadcasters (among them, in Seattle: KUOW and KCTS), and the EarthFix online coverage has been exceptional. The same cannot be said of Washington’s largest daily newspapers or our commercial broadcasters. The recent sale of King Broadcasting to Gannett just moves the general broadcasting sideshow down the road.

Follow Crosscut's continuing coverage of the coal ports issue here.


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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.