Coal clash hits close to home

Activists say promise of jobs doesn't balance impacts on health, environment

By Aaron Corvin and Andrea Damewood

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After a successful fight to stop a biomass energy plant from going into downtown Vancouver, Sarah Collmer, Heather Lehman and fellow members of the Clark County Clean Air Coalition have one notch in their win column.

Yet the next battle they've undertaken -- stopping a half-dozen proposed coal-export terminals in Washington and Oregon -- will be much harder fought, and on a much larger field.

Global energy companies want to establish the Pacific Northwest as a new international hub for coal exports to feed countries hungry for electricity, primarily in Asia. No coal terminals are proposed to be built in Clark County.

Still, the circumstance of being located between points of supply and demand has thrust the county into the middle of a worldwide debate pitting the demands for fossil-fueled growth against calls to embrace renewable energy to curb the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

Coal backers say the economic benefits are too great to pass up. They point to studies that show the six coal-export facilities would produce thousands of construction and full-time jobs for numerous struggling areas, including Clark County.

But area neighborhoods would see an increase in trains hauling coal to other communities where export terminals are planned, including in Longview. And the prospect of increased diesel emissions from added trains is stirring concerns from regional clean-air officials.

That's why Collmer and Lehman and their clean-air coalition are mobilizing now, joining regional and national environmental groups to oppose coal shipments. Locally, they're not alone as city councils, ranging from pro-business Camas to crunchy Seattle, have raised official concerns about everything from traffic problems to coal dust to U.S. export policies.

"What happens when the outside world intrudes on your local community is you must stand up and define what your community values are," Lehman said. "If Vancouver stands up, it will help everyone down the line."

Six projects in the works

Coal backers are proposing three export terminals in Washington and three in Oregon. They would be situated as far north as Bellingham and as far south as Coos Bay, Ore. All would use rail to move the coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to the terminals.

From the Pacific Northwest, the coal would be loaded onto ocean-going vessels bound for Asia. One plan also would involve barging the coal to a site in Oregon before shipping it to Asia. Four proposals are in the beginning stages of the environmental-review and permitting processes, while the other two are in negotiations.

Sally Toteff, regional director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, said in an email to The Columbian that the number and scale of the projects are unprecedented. "Our agency has not experienced simultaneous large scale export projects like this that involve significant rail, vessel, and environmental impacts," she said.

To become a reality, all of the projects must receive approvals from local, state and federal regulatory agencies. Decisions are months away, and opponents from local grass-roots groups to national environmental heavy-hitters are preparing for battle.

But in a world constantly in need of more energy, the law of supply and demand is exerting a powerful pull. China's consumption of coal is nearly half of global demand, according to the International Energy Agency. The booming nation became a net coal importer in 2009, triggering a rise in prices and new investment by exporting companies, the agency said.

Other world suppliers are in a better position, both economically and geographically, than the U.S. to slake China's thirst for coal. But many have run into problems. For example, some of Australia's export infrastructure has broken down and weather-related events, including flooding, have disrupted lines of international commerce in that country, said Bill Watson, coal team leader for the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As a result, it's the "perfect storm for somebody who's a marginal supplier, like the U.S., to jump in big time," Watson said.

China isn't alone in clamoring for coal -- other Asian giants including India are pursuing imported coal for their energy needs.

"The whole of the Asian Pacific Rim is one market area," said Ken Miller, president and CEO of Millennium Bulk Terminals Longview LLC, which proposes a coal-export terminal in Longview.

"It's not just the West Coast that will end up serving the booming demand for coal," Miller added. "Quite frankly, coal producers and coal-export terminals all over the world are positioning to meet that demand."

Despite a local thirst for jobs, many Northwesterners view the specter of coal-bearing trains with the same enthusiasm of receiving a lump of coal from Santa Claus.

If all of the terminals proposed in Washington and Oregon are approved, estimates drawn from government officials and The Columbian's own analysis show companies would ship more than 150 million tons of coal annually to Asia. By some estimates, that would nearly double the United States' current coal-export capacity.

For perspective: That 150 million tons of coal would power about 42 coal-fired plants in China, each producing 1,000 megawatts to serve some 2.5 million consumers.

Residents who live near railroad lines and environmental activists fighting to slow global warming grasp the implications of such a mighty movement of the black gold that helps fuel the world economy.

"Are we going to build out another whole generation of coal plants for another billion people?" said KC Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, the Seattle-based nonprofit. "That's capital that's not available for building out a clean-energy infrastructure."

Debate over reviews

Currently about three to four coal trains a day pass through Clark County, according to a BNSF Railway spokesman. Estimates vary widely on how many new trains and barges would pass through the Pacific Northwest to move coal to markets. In an April 25 letter to federal agencies -- including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said there could be as many as 63 coal trains per day. A tally by Columbia Riverkeeper, the Hood River, Ore.-based nonprofit, pegs it at 58 coal trains per day. Clark County wouldn't see all of that new train traffic. But some speculate that the county could see as many as 25 more coal trains per day. BNSF Railway, whose rail corridors would be used to haul coal to the Pacific Northwest, won't offer projections.

One major sticking point is whether the six coal-export proposals should be examined for their traffic and other impacts to air, water and land on a localized or more global basis. Kitzhaber, in his letter, urged the federal agencies to prepare a comprehensive, or "programmatic," environmental review.

"Coal-fired energy production in Asia has been directly linked to increases in air pollution on the West Coast of the United States," Kitzhaber wrote. He also wrote: "I am particularly concerned about a substantial increase in rail traffic through the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, where train noise, air emissions and coal dust could adversely affect the recreational and visual values protected by federal law."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency favors Kitzhaber's view, but some business leaders see his request as merely a ploy to endlessly stall coal terminal construction. In an opinion column published in The Columbian last month, Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, argued against a programmatic review, saying it's typically used for new federal policies with broad national impact, not for local projects already examined through existing environmental rules.

"The opponents' presumed goal is to create delay and legal gridlock, making it so difficult, time-consuming and expensive that the backers ultimately give up," Brunell wrote.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has not gone as far as her Oregon counterpart. Gregoire expects the state Department of Ecology "to ensure that the state's environmental rules and regulations are followed, and that the agency will do that job thoroughly and without bias," noted Toteff, of the state Department of Ecology.

The two men vying to succeed Gregoire -- Republican Rob McKenna, the state's attorney general, and Democrat Jay Inslee -- say they don't support Kitzhaber's call for a comprehensive review.

"My view is we ought to have a permitting process that considers the transportation and health impacts of the project, and that can be done with existing statutory framework, without an additional layer on top of it," Inslee said.

McKenna said the review of the coal-export proposals shouldn't go beyond what is now required.

"We also need to be champions for job creation," McKenna said. "We need the jobs, as organized labor is always reminding us, there are a lot of people out of work. These projects that are proposed have to meet our state's high environmental and safety requirements. If they do, they should be treated fairly as any other economic development."

Air pollution and coal dust

Powerful environmental groups and some regulators have focused the debate on the potential dangers of coal dust to people living near rail lines that would carry coal trains. But Bob Elliott, executive director of the Southwest Clean Air Agency, said he has a different concern.

Although his agency will play no role in deciding whether coal terminals are built, Elliott said his greatest environmental-impact worry is about increased pollution from locomotives that will haul the coal.

The cumulative diesel emissions produced by all current train and barge traffic already ranks them among the top polluters in Southwest Washington, Elliott said. Their emissions are nitrogen oxides, carbon oxide, sulfur dioxide, fine particulates and volatile organic compounds -- the kind that create caustic smog, collect in the lungs and cause asthma.

Trains moving through the nearby Columbia River Gorge spewed 8,363 tons of nitrogen oxides in 2004 -- more than 800 times what would qualify a single industrial source for the EPA label of a major polluter. He sees the potential for an increase of up to 40 percent in diesel emissions from general growth in barge and train traffic, including the potential addition of coal-carrying trains.

Suann Lundsberg, a BNSF spokeswoman, said trains produce less pollution than trucks carrying the same amount of coal. Still, Elliott advocates for regional leaders to demand that railroads use a new generation of cleaner-burning, low-emission trains, soon to be available, for coal transport. BNSF Railway plans to spend $1.1 billion on energy-efficient, low-emission trains that cut nitrogen oxide by 60 percent and particulate matter by 69 percent, company Chairman and CEO Matthew Rose said in a letter to Gregoire.

Elliott said political leaders in the Pacific Northwest should dig their heels in and demand that if coal-export terminals are permitted, the rail companies must run the new, low-emission trains here first.

"When I see the big numbers here, I say there's an opportunity here," Elliott said. "If we're going to get more traffic, we need the cleanest engines."

The potential negative effects of coal dust aren't easily dismissed by some. In 2009, concerns about coal dust influenced the Port of Vancouver's decision to export potash from its Terminal 5 rather than coal.

The port's choice came down to two companies: BHP Billiton, the Australian mining giant and the port's would-be shipper of potash -- a fertilizer -- and Sino-American Import and Export LLC, a Beaverton, Ore., company that wanted to export up to 12 million tons of coal annually.

The port wanted any coal storage facilities to be enclosed to control the spread of coal dust, partly for environmental reasons. But there was a strong business angle, too: The area where the port handles Subaru vehicle imports is near Terminal 5. The port reasoned that Subaru of America Inc. would frown on the idea of coal dust wafting over its prized vehicles.

Larry Paulson, who was the port's executive director during the potash vs. coal issue, told The Columbian last year that Sino-American's coal proposal was a "distant second" to the potash venture proffered by BHP Billiton. BHP "is a well-established, long-standing international company," he said. "It was making a commitment to be here for 70 to 80 years. Coal facilities have a tendency to come and go."

Railroad officials respond strongly to assertions that coal dust is harmful to public health. Lundsberg, the BNSF Railway spokeswoman, said that her company has been at the forefront of requiring companies to spray what's known as a surfactant -- a protective spray -- over their coal shipments, which keeps the dust tamped down for its journey.

However, she added, the railroad started using the chemical spray after the dust was found to be so damaging to BNSF's tracks in the Powder River Basin that it was causing "severe structural integrity issues."

Growing concerns

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard's desk at City Hall overlooks the train tracks -- and each and every coal-filled train that passes by. "There's an ungodly amount of questions out there, but nobody's putting forward any answers to them yet," he said.

The city councils of Washougal and Camas have both adopted public resolutions outlining their anxieties about increased train traffic. Cities across the Northwest are adopting similar resolutions. Last week, the Spokane City Council called for more study. And the Seattle City Council has unanimously passed a resolution opposing the development of coal-export terminals in Washington.

Other local governments are weighing in, too. The "unit trains" that haul single bulk commodities such as coal form a chain of as many as 120 cars stretching as long as a mile-and-a-half or more. The prospect of seeing more of them snaking through town has city officials like Guard on edge.

The increased rail traffic from the Port of Vancouver's potash operation -- coupled with more coal-filled trains -- would escalate rail traffic in Washougal, Guard said.

"Our council doesn't want to be standing in the way of commerce … just help us minimize the impacts to vehicles," Guard said. "We're literally bisected by rail lines. And if there are health concerns, tell us what they are."

Some concerns are intensely local. In Vancouver's upscale neighborhoods along the Columbia River, residents already wait for trains that can block travel to and from their homes, and are working to quiet their loud horns. Collmer and Lehman, the local anti-coal activists, also speculated that a boom of trains won't do much to inspire excitement about Vancouver's plans for waterfront development on the Columbia River.

In Vancouver, anti-coal activists are intensifying their calls on the city council to take a stand on the issue. Members of the Clark County Clean Air Coalition and backers of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign have begun to regularly attend meetings and write letters, demanding action. The Hough Neighborhood Association passed a resolution against coal exports in May and sent it to the council.

The Vancouver City Council has scheduled a public workshop July 2 to discuss any position it might take on proposed coal-exporting operations.

"I'd like to be better informed about the issue before I take a stand," said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt. "Whether it's coal dust, additional diesel emissions, a massive influx of train freight traffic … this council will weigh in on the community's behalf."

Collmer and Lehman said it's imperative that local governments speak up on the matter. Taking a wait-and-see attitude isn't an option, they say.

"The first thing is to convince both our local and state government that they need to act now," Collmer said. It's the duty of local governments, she said, to "both protect the citizenry and make sure we have all the information."

Global implications

Local politics is only one window on the coal debate. Another is the pall that covers China's industrial cities, and the prospect of ever more coal spewing into the atmosphere.

The earth's air has reached dangerous new levels of carbon dioxide, the main global-warming pollutant, scientists say. And the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal for electricity and oil for gasoline, has caused most of the human-made increase in carbon in the air.

Last year, the International Energy Agency warned that any energy infrastructure built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades. This "lock-in" effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change.

That's why the Pacific Northwest must do its part to say no to new coal-exporting infrastructure, said Golden, the policy director for Climate Solutions in Seattle.

Both Washington and Oregon are making serious attempts to adopt renewable-energy programs, policies and green jobs, Golden said. To embrace coal now in the form of exports "completely undermines an incredibly positive and productive path that the region has chosen for its own energy development."

Moreover, both states are saying goodbye to coal-fired plants. The TransAlta coal-fired power plant in Centralia, which belched nearly 10 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, is scheduled to be phased out. And the Portland General Electric coal-fired plant in Boardman, Ore., which spewed nearly 4 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, is slated to stop burning coal by 2020.

Accepting coal-exporting operations would amount to a reversal of all of that progress, Golden said. "How can you say with a straight face that we're really doing something that can provide a better model when you're busy shipping 50 times as much coal as you used to burn?" he said.

But giving up coal is easier said than done, according to Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green Energy' and the Real Fuels of the Future," in a recent article published in Slate.com. While environmentalists argue for replacing coal with renewable energy, Bryce wrote, "the scale of our coal use is staggering."

"If the world wanted to replace all coal-fired electricity … with juice provided by solar photovoltaic panels, it would require, in rough terms, 470 times Germany's current installed solar capacity, or about 70 times current installed U.S. wind capacity," according to Bryce.

There's no doubt the coal industry poses "serious negative impacts on society," including "strip mines, mountaintop removal, air pollution, mercury emissions, and ash ponds at power plants," Bryce went on. However, "despite these very real costs, coal continues to present a compelling value for electricity production because deposits of the fuel are abundant, widely dispersed, easily mined, and not controlled by any OPEC-like cartel."

If cutting carbon dioxide is the goal, Bryce continued, "then countries around the world will have to embrace natural gas and nuclear on a large scale. But even if that were to happen, the history of coal -- in use for industrial purposes for more than 300 years -- is one of remarkable persistence."

Yet Collmer, the local anti-coal activist, and other activists in Clark County and elsewhere, say coal backers shouldn't be allowed to write the fossil fuel's next chapter in the Pacific Northwest, not to mention in their neighborhoods.

"This isn't Vancouver warming, this isn't Washington warming, this isn't U.S. warming -- it's global warming," Collmer said.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.