In Our View: Coal Trains Rumbling?

Local residents, pay close attention to proposals for new export terminals

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The Port of Vancouver has no coal-export plans on the table now or for the foreseeable future. But anyone who believes our community is unaffected by the simmering dispute between coal exporters and environmentalists would be greatly mistaken.Twenty or more daily coal trains could be added to local rail traffic if U.S. coal exports soar as many maritime shipping interests hope. And there are legitimate concerns that the increased rail congestion and possible coal dust pollution here could erode the local quality of life. The governing factor in this dispute must be solid science, provided by independent sources. And that’s why we’re encouraged to see aggressive reviews launched at both the state and federal levels.

The most recent of these was reported this week. The Environmental Protection Agency has told the Army Corps of Engineers that it should review coal-export projects involving barge and rail lines throughout the Northwest. And, less than two months ago, the state Department of Natural Resources said it would conduct a “rigorous environmental review” of coal-export plans in Washington.

This is the type of scrutiny that government must provide as the traditional struggle continues between corporate and environmental interests. There’s no way of knowing if some or all of the proposed projects will be fully permitted by state and federal agencies. Regardless of how that plays out, rulings from these stewards of air and water quality will be staunchly opposed, likely in the courts. But the stakes are too high to adopt a lenient approach.

Of many proposals throughout the Northwest, the one that would most profoundly impact Clark County is in Longview, where Millennium Bulk Terminals is seeking permits to build a coal-export terminal. Supplying that operation would be a procession of trains from Montana and Wyoming, and local interests are mustering in opposition to the sharp increase in coal trains that already come through here.

It’s vital that all local residents learn about the economic benefits and environmental threats of these plans, weigh one against the other, and participate in the process through public hearings and feedback to the federal EPA and the state DNR.

Skeptics might wonder: How big is this issue, really? Actually, it’s huge. Coal exports have reached their highest level in two decades. Heavy demands for coal are coming from Asian countries and, according to The Oregonian, Canada has the only coal-export terminals on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, demand for domestic coal is shrinking. In response, several coal-export proposals are under way along the Columbia River, plus in Bellingham, Port of St. Helens, Port of Coos Bay and elsewhere.

Pressure from both sides will be immense in coming months. All the more reason for exhaustive research by neutral scientists at the EPA and the DNR. We encourage readers to look for opportunities to learn about the debate and get involved in its resolution. Dynamic shifts in both economic development or environmental protection hang in the balance.