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Originally published December 20, 2012 at 4:45 PM | Page modified December 20, 2012 at 4:46 PM

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Set the environmental bar high on coal transport and export

Washington residents across the state want the broadest review of environmental, health and safety impacts from coal trains and coal ports.

Times editorial columnist

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From the boisterous meeting at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, it was clear residents from far and wide want the broadest possible review of plans for a coal port near Bellingham.

The intimate gathering of thousands last week was the final of seven sessions — in Bellingham, Friday Harbor, Mount Vernon, Ferndale, Spokane, Vancouver and Seattle — to gauge how narrow or expansive the environmental-impact assessment should be.

Ostensibly the focus is the Gateway Pacific Terminal, but the overwhelming call is not for a project-specific inquiry that looks at a single activity, but for a big-picture study of regional impacts and the cumulative effects of multiple coal terminals proposed for Washington and Oregon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County are the so-called coleads for the process. Their determination of the breadth of the review is a warm-up for plans for Longview and elsewhere.

Getting the template right is important.

The meetings were not convened to tally yeas and nays for proceeding with annually shipping 140 million tons of Powder River Basin coal from various ports, but to determine what impacts, alternatives and mitigated effects should be examined to guide state and federal permitting decisions.

Spokane’s session heard from those in neighboring states who would suffer every rail car, regardless of its eventual port of departure. Spokane and many other cities and towns would get the same treatment.

A rally in Freeway Park before the Seattle meeting was alive with speeches, protest theater, sign waving and indignation about what was being foisted off on the state.

The queue to get into the hearing stretched for hundreds of feet, and it was filled with as diverse a collection of people by age, ethnicity and gender as I have ever seen at such a rally.

Deep concerns about environmental impacts here at home, across the state and for the planet brought together people motivated by alarm over climate change, religious values, political ideologies, worries about the economy, marine degradation, taxpayer expense, medical issues, public-safety hazards, cultural threats and fears for the welfare of their grandchildren.

One could hear the unspoken plea, “Enough!” Climate change is real; as real as the waves Monday crashing against West Seattle sea walls, which scientists describe as the new normal by midcentury.

Clouds of Chinese coal-plant exhaust wafting east toward the United States to settle into the ocean to acidify the food chain for sea life and humans are real.

Washington communities wondering who will pay for the underpasses and overpasses to keep traffic and emergency vehicles moving while hundreds of coal cars chug through town is real. Fiscal concerns cross partisan lines.

Worries about priorities for rail traffic other than coal are real. So is the anxiety about coal dust day after day after day.

Marine experts speculate about the hazards of increased ship traffic and contamination threats to fragile aquaculture.

Putting the environment in jeopardy to nurture an extraction economy is oddly colonial for the 21st century. Mining a product with no value added off public land to power a competitor’s economy is more than galling.

Economists know price-sensitive Chinese will abandon coal imports when their local health issues and cheaper alternatives make coal too costly to use.

The local intrusions here of coal trains, the environmental indignities and the global climate consequences are all real enough to be examined in great depth.

Creating a relative handful of jobs might jeopardize existing jobs because of the unanticipated complications of accommodating the mass and mess of a short-term coal play.

Scale the local, state and federal environmental reviews to the questions raised by legions of concerned Washington residents.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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