Editor’s note: COAL, a KCTS9/EarthFix documentary, makes its television premiere Wednesday, June 19. You can dig deeper into the issues raised in the documentary by following the script and the many links to additional information.
Phil Dillinger, Coal miner: “Between 40 and 50 percent of the nation’s coal needs comes out of the Powder River Basin.”
Tom Lubnau, Wyoming legislator: “We’re on a 90-foot thick seam of coal here, the thickest seam anywhere in the world.”
Marion Dozier, Billings, Mont. resident: “It’s all about big bucks, and big bucks talks.”
LJ Turner, Wyoming rancher: “Where the land is being coal mined. It’s being destroyed.”
Dan Jaffe, University of Washington-Bothell professor: “If we don’t consider climate change in a proposal to export coal it means the game is over.”
Shahraim Allen, BNSF Railway locomotive engineer: “It’s not going to be harmful to the environment.”
Phil Dillinger, Wyoming coal miner: “You talk about a stimulus package for the United States. Coal is a stimulus package.”
Jeremiah “Jay” Julius, Lummi Indian tribal council member: “This is ground zero of defining the future of energy throughout the whole world.”
Martin Donohoe, Portland physician and public health advocate: “All of the suffering, the global warming, the droughts, the famines. The coal companies don’t have to pay for that. You and I pay for that.”
It’s the heart of the crab fishing season in the Salish Sea.
This network of coastal waterways extends beyond the border of Washington state into British Columbia.
It’s one of the largest and most biologically rich inland seas in the world.
Thousands of species call this place home, including some of the longest lived animals on the planet.
It’s difficult to calculate the true value of the Salish Sea, especially to the people who have lived here the longest.
Julius: “The whole landscape is sacred to us. There’s not much contaminant free lands left in the United States. This is one of them.”
Jeremiah “Jay” Julius is a fisherman from the Lummi tribal community.
For hundreds of generations, his tribe has relied on the halibut, salmon and crab that thrive in these waters.
Julius: “Fishing is who we are. Fishing is our culture. And to us, culture is fish. It’s just in our blood.”
It’s here at Cherry Point just north of Bellingham, Washington, where tribal fishermen drop their crab pots, that the largest coal export terminal in North America is proposed to be built.
Nearly 500 ships would travel these waters every year, carrying coal to the other side of the Pacific.
The rapid industrialization of Asia means that coal-fired power plants are being built there every week.
Bob Watters, SSA Marine: “This project, our particular project, Gateway Pacific terminals, when built and fully operational at full capacity, would generate approximately $5.5 billion in foreign monies infused back into the U.S. economy.”
This possibility has placed the Northwest in the middle of a controversial debate:
Should the region build export terminals that would open lucrative markets for the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel? As the nation’s economy continues to struggle, can the country afford not to?
Darren Williams has been a longshoreman in Bellingham, Wash. for more than three decades.
Williams: “Today, because there’s no work in the port that I’m hired to work in, I end up spending a lot of time on the road traveling.”
There hasn’t been regular work in the port of Bellingham for nearly 10 years. That’s means Williams often must drive hundreds of miles for the chance to get a day’s work in another port.
Williams: “If we had work here steady in Bellingham, it would make my life much simpler. Because all the hours that we spend traveling would be spent at home. Almost everything that we have in this country is affected by import and export over seagoing vessels. And longshoremen play a big part in that.”
Williams: “I think at the heart of most issues you can always find money. I’m not going to try and be holy and say that I think it should be built because it’s a grand thing to do, I think it should be built because of economic reasons. That’s money. Economic for me personally, economically for the community and the state.”
Williams: “So what happens if the Gateway project is not built? I guess my kids and other kids in this community will go elsewhere to find jobs. We’ll see a couple more grocery stores shut down, we’ll see negative, negative, negative.”
Julius: “They say we are going to lose all these jobs and taxes if we don’t go in, which to me is false because you can’t lose something you don’t have. We have our fish. We have our salmon. We have clean air. We have a coal-free corner in Washington state. We’ll lose that. That’s losing to me.”
Julius: “To me these tankers are the trains that killed off the buffalo. These tankers are going to kill my way of life, my fishing, my salmon, my shell fish. So to me this is — it is a battle.”
Gillette, Wyoming lies in the heart of the nation’s largest coal mining region.
One out of every six people here works for the coal industry.
People like Phil Dillinger.
Mining has provided a steady salary to support his family and send his four children to college.
Dillinger: “It’s that stability of knowing that every two weeks I’m going to get a paycheck. And that’s, that’s a huge, huge thing.”
Dillinger’s job is loading coal into trains.
Dillinger: “So our job is, by the time it’s dumped into that coal hopper all the way to the time when we load it onto the trains. That’s coal processing. That’s what I do. On an average, it takes a minute to a less than a minute to fill up one car. One train car of coal.”
Across Wyoming more than 250 square miles have been mined. That’s more than 3 times the area of the city of Seattle.
Mining companies are required to restore the ecosystems they disrupt.
But so far only about 10 of those 250 square miles have been turned back into healthy rangeland.
For some ranchers like LJ Turner, coal companies haven’t been good neighbors.
Turner: “Just as a pure role of the dice our leases were all over in the area where the coal mining is. It was a beautiful place to run cattle. We’ve lost about 6,000 acres. It was some of the nicest country in the world. I miss it.”
Now he has to drive his herds hundreds of miles to find rangeland.
Turner: “What’s happening here is something that’s going to continue to happen and once you destroy this area, And I hate to say it, but where the land is being coal mined, it’s being destroyed. All of the water along the creek are fueled by these aquifers that run along the creek bed and where the coal mine has just mined completely across — the creek just doesn’t exist anymore and they’ve totally interrupted the flow, the natural hydraulic flow of the water and so it’s just gone.”
The United States relies on coal to provide about 40 percent of the nation’s energy. But in recent years, U.S. utilities have been switching from burning coal to burning natural gas.
That trend has pushed U.S. coal companies to search for other customers.
Dr. Martin Donohoe, Portland physician and public health specialist: “The coal industry recognizes that over the next few years to decades as we in the U.S. and countries in Asia use more and more environmentally friendly forms of energy that the market for coal is just basically going to completely tank. So they want to get it out of the ground as quickly as possible sell it incredibly cheaply to China and Korea and India and make the money while they can.”
The most direct path would be to send coal trains through the river valleys of the Northwest to its deep-water ports.
The only obstacle is the lack of adequate coal export facilities.
Cherry Point is one of a handful of places in Washington and Oregon considering building coal export terminals. These facilities would allow U.S. coal companies to ship up to 100 million tons of coal every year.
If these terminals are built, communities along the railroad could see between 18 and 37 additional coal trains a day. And each coal train can stretch a mile and a half long.
Marion Dozier lives in the cross hairs of three rail lines in Billings, Mont. She knows what it’s like to live in close proximity to coal trains.
Dozier: “When you’ve got a train that’s 120 cars long, you’re sitting there for a good four or five minutes or so at the train crossing.”
Dozier: “We’re just three blocks away, and we never know where the dirt comes from, but there’s dirt on your cars and your windows, and if your windows are open you’ve got grit.”
Dozier: “It’s an issue that’s very hard to get the ordinary person in any way excited about it. If they’re not waiting at the train and it’s 103 degrees out and they’re waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, they don’t care. And they won’t care.”
Coal trains headed to the Northwest for export would travel through Montana, across the panhandle of Idaho and then down to the Columbia River.
The Columbia is the largest river in the West. Its dams provide the region with cheap electricity. They also create slackwater reservoirs that allow cargo to be transported from hundreds of miles within the Northwest’s interior.
Often these vessels carry grain, but soon they could be carrying coal.
It would be Anne McIntyre’s job to navigate coal ships through these narrow channels of the Lower Columbia.
Anne McIntyre, Columbia river pilot: “Captains of ships really can’t learn all the local knowledge that every port requires for every ship to call on that port. So we’re the person with the local knowledge. Many people would say that we work under the radar. Nobody knows that we’re there. But we are a 365 day a year, 24/7 operation. We’re moving ships all the time.”
McIntyre: “I don’t view a coal ship as being any different than any other ship that I navigate. You could put grain in it. You could put steel in it. You could put fertilizer in it. It’s the same type of ship. It’s just that the cargo is different. We bring large ships in the river routinely. 900 feet long. 1,000 feet long. If you put that ship on end, it would be taller than a building in downtown Portland. But that is what we do.”
If coal is exported by way of the Columbia, it could mean up to about 700 additional ships each year. But this prospect doesn’t worry McIntyre.
McIntyre: “A pilot’s job really is to mitigate risk, and we view ourselves as being on the front lines of defending the environment. I think the likelihood of coal spilling out of a ship onto the river is just about nil.”
Coal that doesn’t travel by way of the Columbia would continue on the railroads that pass through the small towns and major cities of the Northwest.
Little research has been conducted to measure how passing coal trains impact air quality.
Professor Dan Jaffe is a leading expert in atmospheric pollution. He’s begun to take a closer look.
Dan Jaffe, University of Washington-Bothell professor: “We stood on the bridge over the tracks at Richmond Beach and watched a couple dozen trains going by and we measured particulate matter concentrations that were well above the health thresholds.”
Jaffe: “The data we have collected on diesel and coal exhaust on trains is very preliminary. I’d be disappointed to see a policy decision go forward without more information on the air pollution impacts.”
Coal dust contains neurotoxins like arsenic, lead and mercury.
In 2009, a BNSF Railway representative testified that as much as 645 pounds of coal dust is lost from each car during a 400-mile journey. And if a coal train usually has about 125 cars, the amount of dust could add up quickly.
Physicians also worry about the diesel exhaust coming from train locomotives.
Donohoe: “We know from numerous peer reviewed population wide studies that there is an increase in asthma exacerbation when people are exposed to diesel particulate matter.”
Donohoe: “It’s important to realize that the particles from the coal trains, the particles of coal dust, the particles in the diesel matter are microscopic, ultra-fine particles that you can’t see. They’re the ones that do the real damage because they make it to the deepest parts of the airways. So you may not be seeing it, but you’re breathing it, and it’s affecting you.”
Shahraim Allen has worked for BNSF Railways for 19 years.
Shahraim Allen, BNSF Railway locomotive engineer: “I’ve never seen an ounce of dust. That’s just my experience. And I’ve run coal trains, for BNSF Railway my whole career. So I’ve been around coal for a long time. If any has ever escaped, it has been, you know, to a small amount and that there are precautions that have been taken to this day.”
BNSF now requires companies that ship coal to apply what’s called surfactant or a topper agent to coal trains before they leave the mines. They say this helps suppress dust by about 85 percent.
Allen: “I’ve actually climbed on top of the car and I’ve tapped on it and it’s not going anywhere. Its hard.”
Allen: “There is actually an aerodynamic shape, they call it like a bread loaf shape, and what that allows for is even air flow as the train, over the tops of the loads, as the train travels down the tracks.”
Allen: “It’s not going to be harmful to the environment. You know, hauling coal from the powder river basin to the pacific northwest has gone on for decades.”
There are currently three coal trains a day that travel through the Northwest up to ports in British Columbia.
Darren Williams, Longshoremen: “I believe it’s a misconception for the public to believe that if this terminal’s not built, that the train traffic won’t increase anyway.”
Canadian ports are already operating at near capacity.
They, too, would need to expand in order to ship more coal abroad.
Here at the Westshore terminal in British Columbia about 1.5 million tons of coal is waiting to be shipped to Asia.
Bob Watters, SSA Marine: “Westshore was built in the 1970s. So the environmental laws and requirements and regulations are much different than they are today. Comparing what Westshore terminal is and what our terminals are going to be, you can’t compare the two terminals. On an environmental basis, it’s looking at a 1970 GTO versus a Prius.”
Unlike the Westshore facility, the Gateway Pacific Terminal is designed so the coal would be covered during the loading process.
Watters: “There’s no dust that comes out whatsoever. So we’ve built in a great deal of design elements to protect the environment. We have all of our conveying systems on the terminal covered. Any conveying systems that go out over the water are actually completely enclosed.
Watters: “We don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. We think you can do both – that you can develop family wage jobs and be good stewards and protect the environment.”
Watters: “There’s a demand for this coal in Asia. So the question is, do we want the impacts and the coal to go through Canada, and have them get the jobs and the tax revenues? Or do we want to build these facilities here and have that $5.5 billion worth of, of foreign monies be injected back into our economy rather than into the Canadian economy. That’s the real question.”
Before any of the coal export terminals can be built, the environmental impacts of these facilities must be studied.
In the fall of 2012, federal and state agencies asked for input on the Gateway Pacific project. They held public meetings throughout the Northwest.
Thousands from both sides testified.
Twelve-year-old Rachel Howell was one of the youngest to speak.
Howell testifies: “My generation will pay a high price for the global warming that you do. This is the future that you’re creating for us and this isn’t the future that we want.”
Rachel Howell, environmental activist: “I have to say I was pretty nervous. When I was up on stage I was just thinking about delivering the message. And it was sort of a nervous, exciting feeling, I was just really happy.”
Rachel Howell testifies: “Please don’t build these coal export terminals, it’s just not fair to my generation.”
Howell’s parents are environmentalists. Her mom works for the Northwest Energy Coalition and her dad works for the Sierra Club.
Howell: “I first learned about the plans to export coal when my dad came home one day and he started talking about it. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal because I didn’t understand the full concept back then. When you hear something that’s really bad and you don’t want to accept it and you shut it out and you pretend it’s not real and you pretend the opposite of that is happening.
Howell snowboards with her family at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington’s Cascade mountains.
Howell: “When you’re up there and you’re looking around you just see wilderness and you think, ‘beauty.’ There’s a lot of snow up there but if global warming keeps up, and that snow is going to start to disappear. It sort of shows you how amazing the parts of the world that are untouched by humans can really be.”
When coal is burned, a whole suite of pollutants is emitted (including Carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particle ash, mercury, lead, cadmium, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, arsenic).
That pollution doesn’t just stay in the air above a power plant. It travels.
You can’t see Asia’s air pollution from the top of Mount Bachelor in Central Oregon. But it’s here.
Dan Jaffe, Unversity of Washington-Bothell: “Typically it takes about five to ten days for air over China to move to the pacific northwest so if pollutants were emitted from a factory in China at the surface they’ll get wafted up into the air and we may detect them a week later.”
Dan Jaffe and his team have built this mountaintop research station to learn how China’s escalating pollution impacts the rest of the world.
Jaffe: “It’s a wonderful location for doing the kind of research that we do. For understanding global pollutants and the transport of pollutants from Asia over here to the United States.”
Of all the pollutants released when coal is burned, it’s carbon dioxide that most concerns Jaffe and other scientists.
Once built to full capacity, Northwest export terminals would ship 100 million tons of coal to Asia every year. Burning that coal, would put about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
Jaffe: “Climate changes needs to be considered in any proposal to ship coal to Asia.”
Bob Watters, SSA Marine: “It’s a real slippery slope. If you look at the greenhouse gas effects of a product that we manufacture and export, do you look at that with Boeing airplanes? The jets that Boeing produces and sells to the international airlines produce greenhouse gases. this is the kind of precedent that precludes our country from being able to go ahead and continue to expand our exports. Actually what it will do is constrict the exports that we have in our country and our economy.”
Jaffe: “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.”
Rachel Howell, environmental activist: “When my temperature goes up 1.4 degrees, I’m not allowed to go to school. And if I do stuff, it makes it worse, and if I ignore it, it makes it worse. And it’s the same thing with the planet. But the problem is people are in essence letting the planet go to school and ignoring it. And so the temperature’s going up and up and the planet’s getting more unhealthy and more sick.”
Howell: “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. And so it’s not fair because we are trying to do good and yet our efforts make no difference because of what older generations are doing.”
If the Pacific Northwest becomes the gateway for sending coal to the Asia, there will be winners and there will be losers.
How do we weigh those costs?
How do we decide what is best for our future?
And how do we make sure that a decision today’s solution doesn’t lead to tomorrow’s crisis?
Phil Dillinger, coal miner: “It’s going to mean economic stimulus. There is no doubt. To this region and beyond.”
Dan Jaffe, University of Washington-Bothell professor: “I think we need to be careful of a short term economic gain for a small relatively modest number of jobs for changes that are going to change our region and our planet permanently.”
Jeremiah “Jay” Julius, Lummi Indian tribal fisherman: “If this coal port goes through, Lummi will feel this for the rest of time. We’re not anti-jobs. But we have to fight to protect what little we have left.”
Darren Williams, longshoreman: “We can’t just say we’re not going to burn any more fossil fuels, we’re going to use wind and we’re going to use solar power. Maybe we’ll get to that someday. But we can’t just do that overnight.”
Martin Donohoe, physician and public health advocate: “The time to make that change to sustainable energy is now. It’s going to be too late in even just a few years. We need to do this now and we need to do it on an Apollo lunar mission type level.”
Bob Watters, SSA Marine: “I don’t want to try to tell people what they should or shouldn’t think. People are intelligent; all I want to do is give them the facts. You give people the facts, people will come to the right conclusions.”
Rachel Howell, environmental activist: “If you force them they’re more likely to choose the opposite side and so you have to give them an open choice and give them the facts and the truth and they’ll realize even without you pushing them that that’s the right decision.”
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.