Review proposed coal terminals for impacts across Washington
Six coal terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington touch communities across the two states. Environmental, health, transportation and public-safety impacts require broad reviews.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Do not expect the dust to settle on expansive plans to ship coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to Asia via six proposed coal ports in Oregon and Washington.
The derailment Monday of 31 cars of a 125-car coal train at Mesa in Franklin County, 20 miles north of the Tri-Cities, made hypothetical hazards and disruptions all too real. Two other coal trains subsequently derailed in Illinois and Texas this week. The intensity of concern, suspicion and outright opposition to the proposed coal exports and all their rail impacts on local communities is growing. Plans call for massive coal terminals near Bellingham, Grays Harbor and Longview on this side of the Columbia River, and at Port Westward, Coos Bay and Boardman in Oregon.
Potentially dozens of coal trains could daily cross Washington, with Spokane and towns such as Camas and Washougal in Clark County in the path of most all the traffic. The Spokane City Council passed a resolution in June calling for detailed impact studies that look at environmental, health and local transportation issues.
The Seattle City Council in late May adopted a resolution against coal trains moving across the state and through Seattle for health reasons, and the broader impacts of coal on the Earth's climate. The council was unequivocal about monitoring local rail plans for their environmental consequences.
The unanimous council said the city would ask for draft plans for intersections affected by the rail traffic and require the railroad to pay for upgrades.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber made a strong call in April for the federal government to conduct a "comprehensive analysis of the environmental, community, economic, transportation and energy-security impacts of the proposed coal exports to Asia before proceeding with further permitting and leasing decisions."
In a meeting last week with the Times editorial board, Washington's two leading candidates for governor found a point of agreement. Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee called for broad health and environmental reviews.
Communities and concerned groups are drawing a tighter line. They expect deep, regional analysis. Stand alone, disconnected studies at each site are not acceptable. What happens in Whatcom County matters in Spokane.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is curiously silent, though supportive of the cumulative review sought by Kitzhaber. If she has taken the kind of pointed stand her career and credentials might suggest, the word has not gotten out.
Gregoire received a letter in May from the chairman and chief executive officer of the BNSF Railway Company, tallying corporate commitments. He expressed confidence "virtually no measurable coal dust will exit coal cars in Washington state or any point along the trip from the mines to the port facility."
Well, there is a baseline for measuring the very grit that BNSF had fits over because of the way it fouled rail facilities.
In Oregon, Portland General Electric made news in May with opposition to a proposed coal terminal. PGE is concerned coal dust could impair operation of its natural-gas power plant at Port Westward.
Closer to home, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling is convening a community-education campaign to explore deep concerns about coal trains, and increased train traffic, as a long term issue. A city-council resolution opposing coal trains dates to November 2011.
The Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, Sustainable Edmonds, local police and fire and a senior center are all worried about delays that already impede loading and unloading of ferry traffic and access to the waterfront for public safety.
One option under consideration, the mayor said Monday, is an underpass that would start south of Main Street, drop down and turn toward the tracks. Who might pay? Earling's list includes federal, state and local governments, grants and corporations benefiting from access to the waterfront.
The coal-train debate has a long reach. Washington citizens need the broadest possible review of impacts.
Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.