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Pacific Northwest Says No to Coal Trains

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Photo Credit: Big Stock

Thursday September 20, 2012 – Portland, Oregon joined several other Pacific Northwest communities in a unified front against coal with the passage of a city council resolution calling for a full Environmental Impact Statement to be conducted by the Army Corp of Engineers. Such a study often takes years to conduct and allows for ample public input.

Executive Director of Beyond Toxics, Lisa Arkin, expresses her reasons for opposing coal trains through Oregon communities:

“The coal industry wants us to believe that coal exports are inevitable, and that supporting continued mining and burning coal is our destiny.”

The state of Oregon has seen it’s fair share of opposition against coal this past year including one where Robert F Kennedy rallied in Portland against it.

Coal Demand is Dwindling

American demand for coal is going down. The charts below clearly show that natural gas is on the rise while coal is decreasing. There are several reasons for the decreasing demand including prices as compared to other cheaper sources, expensive pollution controls, and public opposition from anti-coal activists. In one sense, it is good that dirty coal is too expensive to burn given that the Environmental Protection Agency requires strict pollution controls for new coal power plants. It is also the reason for the scheduled shutdown of several coal fired plants in the coming decade.

Since coal fired power plants aren’t burning enough coal to keep up with demand in North America, coal mining companies are keen on exporting their raw materials to China where the growing super power will gladly burn coal with much less pollution controls than the US to satisfy it’s energy hungry economy. Plan after plan has been put forth across communities in the Pacific Northwest for fancy new export terminals in at least six Pacific Northwest communities.

Why are residents of the Pacific Northwest saying No to Coal? Opponents of the coal trains don’t want to deal with the increased train traffic with their diesel exhaust carrying rail-car after rail-car filled with coal and it’s toxic dust. Many opponents also cite not being happy about out-sourcing coal pollution and greenhouse gasses to Asia.

The problem will only get worse as more and more coal fired power plants begin to shutdown in the coming years. Data analysis taken this past summer via eia.gov shows us that 27 Gigawatts of coal fired power will be decommissioned in the next five years alone – with the possibility of 49 Gigawatts of decommissioned coal fired power by 2020.

Coal Retirements Map

Credit: http://www.eia.gov

When I look back to Lisa Arkin’s statement about coal companies wanting us to believe that exporting coal is a part of our destiny, it makes me wonder who are they trying to fool? All the numbers are stacking up against coal mining companies as shale gas and fracking (another environmental battleground) gain more and more popularity. The coal mining companies have no choice but to export or face major cutbacks or shutdowns.

The Dilemma:
The problem Americans are facing, however, is that of a recessionary hangover and certainly for some people a recession or depression that hasn’t ended. Coal mining companies will exploit people’s desperation for jobs and economic stimulus.

Environmentalists tend not to believe dirty energy should be a part of an overall energy portfolio and are usually in favor of phasing out the oil and coal industry as a priority while simultaneously phasing in a new age of clean alternative renewable energy. Examples of mining companies closing down can be read in the Washington Post, the West Virginia State’s Journal, and various other online news media outlets. When you factor in the families that might be destroyed by the loss of jobs in the coal mining industry, it’s hard not to empathize for them. But a future that is free of dirty energy and a future low carbon economy is certainly a brighter one, right? Maybe the government can help with work-force training to aid workers losing their jobs in the mining industry gain the skills needed to work for the solar or the wind industry.

Coal vs Natural Gas

Credit: http://www.eia.gov

Energy forecasters predict that this year (2012) coal use will drop below 40% for the first time since World War II and may drop below 30% by the end of the decade.

Even Oregon’s only coal power plant near Boardman, Oregon is scheduled to shutdown in 2020 according to a ruling made by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission which adopted a proposal put forth by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to close the plant.

Six Pacific Northwest export terminals have the potential to move forward via coal trains:


  • Port of Coos Bay, Oregon
  • Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon
  • Port of St. Helens, Oregon
  • Port of Longview, Washington
  • Grays Harbor, Washington
  • Port of Bellingham, Washington

Proposed Routes and Export Terminals in the Pacific Northwest for Coal Trains

coal exports

Proposed Coal Export Terminals in the Pacific Northwest

It appears that each coal train battle will have to be fought individually. For example, the Morrow Pacific project in the Boardman, Oregon community is on the fast track with the US Army Corp of Engineers opting to perform and Environmental Assessment (a much quicker and less exhaustive process), rather than a full detailed Environmental Impact Statement often spanning multiple years.

One plan coal mining companies have is for coal to come from the Wyoming-Montana Powder River Basin all the way west by train to Boardman, Oregon. The coal would then be loaded onto barges at the Port of Morrow and shipped a couple hundred miles up the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens where ocean bound ships would transfer the coal for transport to Asia.

The concerns from everyday citizens are growing. That includes Bonnie Meltzer, she is referenced in an OPB article about her concern of coal dust drifting into her backyard where she claims to grow 50% of her own food.

“Think about our farms with trains running through them or near by. Will the coal dust and the diesel contaminate our food supply? Will the fishing rights of our Native American neighbors be breached.Will all of us have fish to eat? I have stayed at the charming Lyle Hotel one block from the RR track in Lyle, Washington. A few trains are nostalgic; 50 more deafening trains a day will put them out of business. Will the support businesses of water sports dry up because no one will want to be in our Columbia River with coal barges in the river and 50 more trains a day on its banks?”

More environmental activism is needed to help fight these coal export terminals from out-sourcing greenhouse gases and pollution. It’s good to see that the cities of Eugene, Portland, and Seattle as well as others are taking a stand and calling for a full regional environmental impact statement. Such a comprehensive study of the impacts caused by heavy coal train traffic through the Pacific Northwest rail corridors could give the public the needed information to feel comfortable with saying yes or no to increased coal train traffic.

About John Tarantino (356 Posts)

My name is John Tarantino ... and no, I am not related to Quinton Tarantino the movie director. I love writing about the environment, traveling, and capturing the world with my Lens as an amateur photographer. You can connect with me via Google+ or via Twitter: Follow @EnvironmentBlog


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