Voices of Coal
diverse perspectives on proposed Northwest coal exports
Artist Bonnie Meltzer lives near one of the busiest rail intersections in Portland. Known as the North Portland Junction, the intersection lies about two miles south of the Washington border. If coal export terminals proposed for Coos Bay and the Port of St. Helens are built, as many as 10 coal trains from the Powder River Basin could travel every day near Meltzer’s home.
Meltzer created an art exhibit to convey her opposition to the coal dust and air pollution coal trains might carry into her neighborhood.
Meltzer has found a unique way to raise awareness about coal’s impact on rail congestion, a concern that has been voiced by residents of other communities along proposed coal train routes.
Mark Lowry has driven a bus for almost 20 years in Bellingham, Wash. He takes pride in his job. He also worries blue-collar jobs like his are getting harder to come by.
Lowry is the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council president. It represents 19,000 union-member households in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties. The council supports construction of the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham.
At maximum build-out the terminal could handle 54 million tons of bulk cargo. Forty-eight million tons would be coal. That would make it the largest proposed coal export terminal on the West Coast. For Lowry, the Gateway Pacific Terminal is a source of hope, even though he wishes it wasn’t coal that was being exported.
L.J. Turner’s family started ranching more than a century ago in northeastern Wyoming. He remembers as a boy cutting ice from the creek outside the ranch for use during the summer.
Now the creek runs dry a lot of the time. Turner says the aquifers have been depleted by the nearby coal mines. Not long ago he had to dig a well more than 1,000 feet deep to reach the water.
Turner has also lost access to 6,000 acres of public land where he used to graze his cows. That’s where the mines are today.
Many of his neighbors don’t believe that humans are contributing to global climate change. It’s pretty clear to him that things are changing and that burning coal is a reason.
Robert Hill is an engineer for BNSF Railway. He conducts some of the coal trains that travel through the Northwest. To Hill, concerns about coal dust and noise from coal trains are overblown.
Coal trains have been coming through many communities for many years, Hill says, and there has never been an issue with coal dust — or with coal, period. What coal export terminals will mean for the region, Hill says, is more jobs and an economic boon.
Although his mind is made up, Hill says he appreciates that communities want to have a say about moving coal through the Northwest. That includes his hometown of Washougal, Wash. It’s on a train route along the Columbia River.
Scott Higgins is mayor of Camas, Washington, a town that would see more coal trains if proposed Northwest coal export terminals are approved.
Concerns from community members and advocacy groups brought the issue to his attention. The City Council did some fact-finding and eventually passed a resolution – not for or against the proposals, but asking officials to consider potential impacts to the city.
Higgins doesn’t see any pros or cons. In a city of 20,000, about five people have expressed concerns. “That gives us a little bit of a barometer that most of our citizens realize the same thing our city council realizes. This really isn’t a Camas issue. This is more of a regional and a global issue,” Higgins says.
Robbie Robinson has lived one block from one of the Northwest’s busiest rail yards for 16 years. She says her asthma and allergies worsened when she moved from a farm to Spokane, Wash. Robinson now uses a nebulizer and inhaler.
Coal trains coming from the Powder River Basin already pass by Robinson’s home. She says more trains likely mean more dust; she worries her breathing will suffer.
Idling trains release diesel particulate. That can aggravate respiratory problems. The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency analyzed data from the BNSF Rail Yard and the Union Pacific Rail Yard in Stockton, Calif. The study found that people living within two miles of a rail yard have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer.
Tonya and Richard Burkholder own a dune buggy rental shop next to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
A proposed coal export terminal in Coos Bay would route coal trains just 100 feet from the Burkholder’s home and business. Richard doesn’t mind; trains have rolled through the area for decades, hauling everything from logs to gravel.
The Burkholders aren’t worried that transporting coal will harm the environment. And they don’t think trains will keep tourists away from the dunes, or their business. They’re convinced the terminal will bring desperately needed investment to Coos Bay. It will bring in ships, create jobs and diversify the local economy.
“Put aside the coal,” Richard says. “It’s business.”
Jay Julius is a fisherman and a member of the Lummi Nation tribal council. Lummi people have lived on the shores of Puget Sound north of Bellingham for thousands of years. Not far from their reservation lies Cherry Point, the proposed site for the largest coal export terminal in North America.
In the waters off of Cherry Point, Lummi fishers harvest halibut, salmon, herring, crab and shellfish. Julius worries that the increased coal tanker traffic would harm the tribe’s ability to exercise its treaty-guaranteed rights to harvest these fish and shellfish.
“One accident inside the Salish Sea and my way of life is gone,” Julius says.
If the terminal is built, he says, it could also destroy underwater archaeological sites and upland burial grounds.
River pilot Anne McIntyre boards vessels that are longer than skyscrapers are tall and navigates them with precision through the Columbia River’s narrow channels.
If coal export terminals are built along the river, McIntyre could find herself navigating bulk carriers laden with coal.
Pilots’ main purpose once was to move cargo and protect ships, she says. Since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, their priority has been protecting the environment.
McIntyre has never seen a collision or spill in her 16 years. The way she sees it, the risk of a coal spill is just about nil. If a ship were to run aground, the coal would be in hatches above the water line.