SEATTLE - There are now five places in the Pacific Northwest considering the installment of coal export terminals. The largest, Gateway Pacific Terminal, could be built near Bellingham, Washington. That has some Seattleites worried about potential impacts of the terminals, including increased traffic congestion and rail safety, and consequences to human and environmental health. Others see an opportunity for living-wage jobs and state tax revenue.
As the review process for Gateway Pacific Terminal kicks off, the debate over coal exports has heated up. But the 250 people who attended last night’s panel discussion, “Exploring Powder River Basin Coal Train Proposals” at Seattle’s Town Hall, were respectful of the diverse panelist perspectives. Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix and KUOW moderated the panel.
Jeremiah Julius, is an officer of the Lummi Indian Business Council and a fisherman. He shared his worry about impacts of coal dust and increased coal tanker traffic on limited tribal fishing rights. “One accident inside the Salish Sea and my way of life is gone,” Julius said. He also noted community concerns about potential damage to sacred tribal burial grounds at the proposed terminal site.
SSA Marine would build and operate the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. Senior V.P. and Director of Business Development Bob Watters shared his views about the economic benefits the terminal could provide, but also acknowledged some potential environmental impact from the project and what proponents are doing to mitigate. He said it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. “We believe you can do both. You can can be good stewards of the environment and you can create the jobs,” Watters said. He also fielded some tough questions from Ahearn on climate change, public health and increases in rail traffic in Washington.
Mike Elliott, a former president and current member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, talked about coal dust from trains and shared his perspective on the scope of the review process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to decide whether they will conduct a programmatic environmental impact assessment - which would look at the combined impacts of the five proposed terminals across the region - or conduct a standard review which would assess each terminal independently.
Kimberly Larson, the communications and marketing director of Climate Solutions, shared concerns about the lack of information about coal dust and its potential environmental impacts. She also said that in considering the jobs created by coal export terminals people should “learn how to subtract” - i.e. consider the jobs that could be lost if trains divide communities or climate change impacts the viability of fisheries.
Finally, Sanne Knudson, a law professor at the University of Washington and an expert on the environmental review process, said that climate change could be considered in the environmental review of coal export terminals. She noted a similar case concerning Powder River Basin coal for Midwestern power plants in which the court held that climate change impacts had to be considered in the environmental review.
“With more than 16,000 public comments submitted, it’s clear that at this point, people have a lot of questions,” said Ahearn. “We look forward to continued coverage of the coal export debate in the months and years to come.”
BNSF, the rail company that would bring coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana and deliver it to the Gateway Pacific Terminal, declined to join the panel. However, the company did offer to reimburse “friends of BNSF” for the $5 entrance fee if they attended the event. BNSF has also declined EarthFix’s requests for a sit down interview to talk about the coal dust issue.
Peabody Energy also declined to join the panel discussion. We continue to extend the invitation to interview both companies, whenever they’re ready to talk.
The panel discussion will be broadcast on KUOW Public Radio and The Seattle Channel in the coming weeks. You can also watch (Courtesy of Seattle Channel) or listen to the panel below:
In addition, stay tuned for a KCTS 9/EarthFix documentary, Coal Train, coming June 2013. EarthFix’s KCTS 9 producer shared this documentary preview to help introduce the coal export issue at the panel event:
Here is a sampling of tweets from EarthFix and event attendees: