Tracing Coal Exports’ Deadly Impacts

As fast as the world’s biggest coal companies move to make the Pacific Northwest an export zone for their deadly product, people across the region are organizing to prevent coal exports from Northwestern ports.  From impacted community members, to students who are watching their future go up in flames as China burns vast quantities of US coal, concerned residents of the Northwest are uniting for a clean energy future.

The Northwest has already made great strides.  On Thursday the Washington legislature passed the Coal-Free Future Act, which will phase out coal combustion in the state (albeit much more slowly than many of us wish).  This builds on an agreement reached in Oregon last year to close that state’s only coal plant (again, we’re working to bump up the timeline).  But even as the Northwest closes the book on its own coal plants, the likes of Arch Coal, Ambre Energy, and Peabody are looking to ship coal abroad.

On Earth Day the Rainforest Action Network and youth organizers at Evergreen State College delivered over 7,000 petitions to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, asking her to oppose coal exports.  Students also dropped off a list of six Washington colleges and universities where student governments are endorsing goals for a coal-free future, including a commitment to build no new coal export terminals in the state.   Closer to proposed terminal sites, students and community members are building a movement  to prevent export projects going through.  On Saturday I joined representatives of the Sierra Club and a group of thirteen students from Portland’s Reed College, who travelled to Longview, Washington to learn about the impacts of coal exports first-hand. 

On a warm spring morning we met with members of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, a grassroots organization fighting a proposed coal export terminal.  Millenium Bulk Logistics, the US branch of Australia’s Ambre Energy, wants to export up to 60 million tons of coal yearly out of Longview to markets of China and elsewhere.  Arch Coal, the second biggest US coal company, has a 38% stake in the project.  If Millenium gets its way, Longview will see five coal trains charge into town every day, each consisting of 125 cars.  This drammatic increase in rail use would tie up traffic and restrict access to the community’s only hospital.  As Longview residents have begun to quip (and it isn’t a joke), how many babies will be born in the backs of cars that get stuck waiting for the latest coal train to pass through town?

As if this wasn’t enough, trains would pepper Longview and other communities with toxic coal dust as they pass through town.  A single uncovered coal car (remember, each train has 125), can shed 500-2,000 pounds of dust laden with mercury and other poisonous chemicals.  Of course the coal companies could cover their cars to minimize dust lost – but they say it’s too expensive and they don’t want to do it.  You gotta love the industry’s inherent concern for the people who have to put up with it.

These pollution impacts would worsen the health of an area that already has one of the highest asthma rates anywhere in Washington.  Longview and the surrounding Cowlitz County has long been a target for industries that have been turned away from other parts of the state.  By selecting Longview as the site for their proposed terminal, Ambre and Arch Coal are following a pattern that’s all too common, selecting an already impoverished community they believe will not have the means to fight back.  Fortunately they are wrong; resistance to coal exports is already strong in the area. 

At an early Cowlitz County hearing on the Millenium terminal, almost everyone who testified spoke out against the project (that didn’t stop the county commission from giving their stamp of approval anyway).  Now Citizens for a Safe and Healthy Community is working with environmental nonprofits like the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, and Climate Solutions to send the coal companies packing.  On Saturday we heard from community activists like Gayle Kiser and Sandy Davis, who’ve already helped defeat one large fossil fuel project in their area – the proposed Bradwood Landing LNG terminal.  Reed College students learned how work in solidarity with Longview residents to oppose Millenium’s export terminal.

After touring the railroad tracks we visited the site where Millenium wants to build its export project on the edge of the Columbia River.  We finished the day by writing personalized letters to their banks, asking these financial institutions not to fund dirty coal with our money.  I can say with certainty Northwest students have the energy to help close our region’s doors to Big Coal.  Already we’ve put two coal plants on the path to retirement, and we’re not about to watch the coal industry export its product from our doorstep. 

Whether it’s Evergreen students asking Washington’s governor to stand strong against the coal industry, or students from Reed College taking time away from their studies to learn about the impacts of coal export projects, I’ve already seen the energy that exists for a regional energy justice movement.  We won’t let the coal industry sell Northwest communities short.  The sooner Arch Coal and Ambre figure that out, the better.

5 Responses to “Tracing Coal Exports’ Deadly Impacts”

  1. 1 stan Apr 27th, 2011 at 3:36 am

    you all have great ideas. Just like california. They dont want any power coal powered plants there. Well I live a couple states away, and live by 4 coal powered units. Everytime someone in california turns n there lights they are getting the power from Utah. 75% of the power made here is sent to them. and Who knows where else. So if they dont want the coal or the plants I say shut off there power and let them go nuculear. That seems to be working out all over for the rest of the world. generating waste that will last for millons of years and we dont even know how to store it yet. (savely). The power companies have put everything they have been ask to do to make the coal plants burn cleaner and more efficant. We do not have polution here. The wildlife and and farms prosper fine right next to the plants. So maybe we should be thankful for them men that go under those mountains everyday and risk there lives and die sometimes, just so that all of you can have lights on when you get up in the middle of the night. I guess we could just pull the plug on all the coal powered plants and shut down all the mines and go back to wood stoves and kerosene lamps. How about we develop the technology to light up this country and the steel mills and the cement plants and then we can work at putting all the coal miners and power plant workers that have worked so hard all these years to keep americas lights on out of work.

  2. 2 nickengelfried Apr 27th, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Hi Stan,

    As a matter of fact, we already have technology that could meet this country’s energy needs without coal power; the problem is the extremely powerful fossil fuel lobby is determined to see these technologies never become as widespread as they could. There are other ways of generating electricity besides coal and nuclear power, and other countries are already deploying them much faster than us. Scotland is set to run on 100% renewable power by 2025: are you saying the United States is so technologically backward that we can’t keep up? I have a little more faith in our engineers and scientists.

    Sadly, whether you realize it or not the coal plants you live near are most likely polluting your community; if not it’s simply because the prevalent winds blow the pollution elsewhere. Coal plants emit mercury, lead, arsenic, and a host of other potentially deadly chemicals. Like radiation from a nuclear accident, the effects of these compounds can remain invisible for years. However that shouldn’t tempt you into a false sense of complacency.

    Finally I certainly have a great and abiding respect for the brave workers in our nation’s coal mines. That’s why I wish they didn’t have to risk their lives every day, doing one of the country’s most dangerous jobs. Just last year 29 workers died in a coal mine owned by Massey Energy. Companies like Massey, Arch, and Peabody don’t have our country’s best interests at heart – if they did, would they be lobbying Congress to weaken the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws?

    The tired old argument that “the lights will go out if we stop burning coal” (which, believe it or not, I have heard before) is a vast over-simplification. We have the technology to generate energy in ways that are safer, cleaner, and better than burning coal. Now let’s make use of that know-how.

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About Nick

Nick is a freelance writer, climate activist, and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He got his start in activism by helping to establish a new campus recycling system at Portland Community College; since then he has organized to stop fossil fuel projects and open up space for clean energy in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Nick is currently working with activists throughout the Greater Northwest to protect Northwest communities from coal export projects. When not in school or organizing for a clean energy future, he can be found hiking in the natural areas around Missoula, bird watching, or writing a novel.

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