In Our View: Coal: Let Science Prevail

State Department of Ecology's study will provide valuable data for residents

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Show us the data.

That was the challenge presented recently by Patrick Connor, Washington state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, when talking about concerns over a proposed expansion of coal exports from the Northwest. Asked about assertions that exporting more coal from Washington to China will exacerbate environmental problems, Connor replied: "Show us the data."

Connor sounded defiant, yet he raised a valid point. That is why we welcome the announcement that the state Department of Ecology is embarking upon on a two-year study on the potential impact of coal exports from the region. The proposal would have coal traveling through three terminals — one near Bellingham, one in Longview, and one in Boardman, Ore. — on its way to Asia.

Locally, the debate centers on the impact of rolling large numbers of coal-carrying trains through Vancouver. And the debate has been loud on both sides of the issue.

"This scope is a reflection of Northwest values — the depth and breadth of the scope is absolutely on target and appropriate given the impact this project would have on our way of life," said Cesia Kearns of the Power Past Coal campaign upon the announcement of the state study.

"This decision has the potential to alter the Northwest's long and historic commitment to expanding trade, which today supports four in every 10 jobs in Washington state," countered Lauri Hennessey of the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. In other words, you can find passionate advocates on both sides of this contentious debate. But we'll wait to hear what the experts have to say. Show us the data.

By definition, informed decisions require information, and we long have been waiting on such information before determining whether an expansion of coal exports would be beneficial to Washingtonians.

Certainly, many jobs would be created by the development of the coal-export facilities. But that must be weighed against the environmental impact of coal dust flying off trains, particularly in communities that will not directly benefit from the existence of the facilities. Count Vancouver among those.

Both sides of the argument have merit, and public meetings will be held across the state this fall. That includes a tentatively scheduled meeting on Oct. 9 at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds in Ridgefield.

The state Department of Ecology, by its nature, is a steward of the environment, not beholden to one side or the other. Its impartiality will be crucial in providing information to citizens.

While the issue is complex and detail will be essential, it is disconcerting that such a study will require two years to complete. We aren't advocating haste in this process, but we are hoping that a more timely conclusion can be reached.

Of course, environmental concerns extend beyond the Northwest. Rapidly expanding economies throughout Asia, particularly China, have increased the demand for coal in that part of the world, and that could have worldwide implications regarding the production of greenhouse gases. In a letter sent to the federal Council on Environmental Quality, governors Jay Inslee of Washington and John Kitzhaber of Oregon cite a statistic from the International Energy Agency that global demand for coal will grow by 16.9 percent over the next five years.

Whether or not it would behoove the Northwest to assist in providing that coal remains to be seen. First we need the experts to show us the data.