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Old King Coal

What's with the coal trains here?

I often go to Carkeek Park, in Seattle, and Richmond Beach Saltwater Park, in Shoreline, with my son to, among other things, watch the trains. In the past couple years I’ve seen coal trains rolling through Shoreline, going north and south down the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline by the Sound.

What a flashback—I thought I was in the 1890s. Half expected a belching Great Northern steam engine or two at the head of it! Seriously, it was a real surprise, as I know of only one coal-burning power plant in Western Washington, the Centralia Big Hanaford (soon to be retired), and no coal-burning companies. There were mines (ever heard of Coal Creek, Black Diamond, Carbonado, etc?), but no more. So where did these trains come from? Where are they going?

An awful lot of coal is coming out of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and now the companies want to ship that coal through the Northwest to China. They’ve talked about Bellingham, Cherry Point, Longview, Gray’s Harbor, Tacoma, St. Helens, OR, Coos Bay, OR, and there’s already a coal terminal in Delta, BC, and who knows what Governor Gregoire will do about any of it

It’s no secret fossil fuels are strongly negative in their environmental effects, but not all are made equal. Natural gas (extracted under natural pressure) is generally considered the most benign, or least bad, I should say, but natural gas extracted by ‘fracking’ is a lot worse. Then there is your “light-sweet” land-based oil, offshore oil, heavy oil, foreign oil, tar sand oil, shale oil, anthracite coal, bituminous coal, and lignite (brown) coal. All have different carbon footprints, coal the worst.

The argument that ‘if we don’t sell the coal to the Chinese someone else will’ is irrelevant. We will not have aided and abetted the destruction.

The argument that ‘it’s okay to export it as long as we remain ‘pure’ of coal burning here’ is abominable, as if it’s just peachy to profit from those people hurting themselves so long as we are okay. Besides, it’s like sharing a cup of coffee with someone and saying ‘I know cyanide will kill me, so I’m not going to put any in my half of the cup, but you can do what you want in your half’. It is up to us to make sure it’s not just shipped off somewhere else to be burned there, because we all pay the price as the pollutants enter the atmosphere and the world warms. The global environment is just that- global- and whatever is done to one part of it eventually impacts everything else.

A comment to one story went “Don't panic these facilities will never be built in the Pacific Northwest but in Texas or Louisiana. Of course the hundreds of railroad crews earning $75,000 to $100,000 per year will be working somewhere else. However, Oregon and Washington have all of those great jobs waiting on tables for the tourists.” Right. The argument that short-term profit or even jobs makes long-term damage acceptable is simply too callous and stupid to take seriously.

Anyone who’s been anywhere near a badly tuned truck can tell you just how nasty diesel smoke is, but that’s nothing next to coal. Coal’s downstream health effects are ugly and even its immediate-term esthetic effects are bad. Really, if you don’t have to have it anywhere near you, don’t. It was an honorable part of our economic past, but not of our present, and it would be insane not to eliminate it altogether from our future. Don't be fooled- the only “clean coal” is what you leave in the ground!

Janet Way April 29, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Good column Larry! But, you didn't cover anything about the local impacts to the communities and environments along the RR route. There are doubtless pollution impacts that need to be studied and seriously considered in this discussion. The sheer number of coal train trips would increase astronomically. Here is a website that details some of those potential impacts - http://www.coaltrainfacts.org/key-facts I think our communities need to study these impacts very carefully as these discussions move forward.
Wendy DiPeso April 29, 2012 at 05:58 PM
To cover all the health impacts from mining, transporting and burning coal in any depth would take several more articles. Some information is also available on the April 9th blog posting at http://www.shorelinegreenbusiness.com/green-blog which was also posted at patch.com
Tom Jamieson April 30, 2012 at 06:14 AM
I live by the tracks at Richmond Beach. Though I have no hard data, I have definitely perceived a recent increase in northbound coal trains through Shoreline.
Janet Way May 01, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Thanks Tom. As if your neighborhood doesn't have enough problems with the Point Wells too!!

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