Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Jan. 19, 2022

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In Our View: A Question of Quality of Life

The Columbian

The original version of this editorial inaccurately stated that the Port of Longview is involved with a proposed coal terminal in the city. The facility is being pursued by Millennium Bulk Terminals. The Columbian apologizes for the error, and the editorial below has been corrected.

The arguments might sound familiar to those in Clark County:

• The proposal would bring a seemingly endless string of rail cars carrying a dirty payload down the Columbia River Gorge and through Vancouver.

• It would support the fossil fuel industry at a time when the United States should be working to limit such environmentally damaging energy.

• And it would create big profits for out-of-state companies while leaving all the risk on Southwest Washington’s front step.

While those arguments certainly apply to a much-discussed proposal for an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, in this case they involve a planned coal terminal in Longview. In both situations, the issue revolves around one overriding factor: What kind of communities do we wish to create in Southwest Washington? Do we hope to enhance and promote the area’s natural beauty, or would we be proud to have the region known as a depository for coal (or oil)?

The Longview proposal — currently under review by the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — would build a terminal to receive coal from Wyoming and Montana for transport around the world, most frequently Asia. It could handle 44 million metric tons of coal per year, with all of it traveling by train through Washougal, Camas and Vancouver. That amounts to some 120,000 metric tons of coal each day, and while the coal would not be dropped off in Vancouver, its presence would be felt. Coal dust contains arsenic, mercury and other particulate matter, and coal trains inevitably lead to some amount of dust being released into the air.

In 2009, a representative of railroad company BNSF testified before a federal review board that about 645 pounds of coal dust is released per rail car during a 400-mile journey. Since then, coal companies have been required to spray cars with a surfactant, made mostly of magnesium chloride, to reduce the amount of dust that escapes. Research has indicated that the surfactants suppress emissions by about 85 percent, leaving roughly 100 pounds of coal dust per car to escape. Coal trains typically have about 125 cars. You can do the math.

In other words, what happens in Longview matters to Clark County, with coal dust contributing to increased air pollution that is particularly problematic for children.

Meanwhile, the arguments in favor of the coal terminal don’t pass muster. One is that it would create jobs for Longview, but this ignores two facts: Arch Coal, one of the companies behind the proposal, is on shaky financial footing; and coal is a notoriously volatile industry, given to sharp downturns that lead to sharp layoffs. Another is that the growing economies of China and India are going to use coal whether or not it comes through Washington, but this ignores the fact that it still would be irresponsible to play a role in those nations’ degradation of the environment.

Each of these issues is worthy of consideration in the debate over a coal terminal in Longview. But the primary question should be about the region’s quality of life. A coal terminal and the related businesses it would attract would lead to industrial blight. And coal trains and the dust they give off would exacerbate health issues for residents and lead to degradation of the area’s natural resources.

None of that is consistent with the kind of communities we should be trying to create.