No coal exports

This week, the Sierra Club, several Waterkeepers, and other allies in the Northwest filed legal action that put companies on notice for coal pollution coming off of trains and polluting the region. The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most spectacular, legendary waterways on the planet, such as the Columbia River Gorge and Puget Sound. Residents grow, eat, and export foods that are economic mainstays for the region and are prized around the world – from vegetables to wine to salmon.

Yet the health and safety of the residents and this economy are threatened by proposed massive increases in coal exports through the region. Thousands of railcars loaded with coal are already traveling through communities, and coal rocks and dust are falling and blowing off the cars alongside, and into, the waterways. Coal companies have grand plans to vastly increase those coal shipments through the Northwest and export the coal to Asia – plans that local communities and tens of thousands of residents are battling fiercely and effectively.

“We have people living in areas currently affected by coal trains, who are facing the threat of more coal traffic from proposed coal export projects, and they are already finding coal chunks and dust discharged in public waterways,” said Cesia Kearns, a Beyond Coal Campaign Representative and acting director of the Power Past Coal coalition in the Pacific Northwest.

That’s why the Sierra Club joined Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Re-Sources for Sustainable Communities, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge on Tuesday to send a 60-day notice of intent to sue to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and several coal companies for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Even BNSF admits that its four daily coal trains moving through Washington lose a staggering 120 tons of coal dust daily. Residents are worried this number would only increase if the five proposed coal export terminals planned for the region are built. Those new terminals would add an additional 60 trains through Washington every day – a staggering increase!

These trains (and the ones already moving through the region) carry coal mined in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin. This coal contains mercury, arsenic, uranium, and hundreds of other toxins harmful to human health, and to fish and other aquatic life. The Clean Water Act exists to protect our health and well-being – and under the Clean Water Act, anyone dumping pollutants or fill into U.S. waters must first obtain what is known as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit or a Section 404 dredge and fill permit.

“Discovering the impacts of coal transportation by rail right now illustrates how much more problematic pollution from increased coal exports could become for local communities, and for our food,water, families, and economies,” said Cesia.

No coal exports2
A huge crowd at a recent coal export public hearing in the Pacific Northwest.

For years communities have been asked to bear the financial, health, and quality of life costs of mining, transporting, and burning coal. These costs should be covered by the companies, not American families. Meanwhile, this legal action should also underscore for the Army Corps of Engineers how critical it is to complete a full, cumulative impacts analysis of all the proposed coal export projects through an area-wide environmental impact statement.

The Sierra Club and our amazing coalition partners will hold polluters accountable for violating the law and call attention to the many dangers of much more coal coming through Pacific Northwest communities.

With such vast wind and solar power resources, the Pacific Northwest should be a leader in clean energy, not a thoroughfare for massive, polluting coal exports. Just last week, the governors of Washington and Oregon sent a letter to the White House calling on them to fully evaluate the climate and air pollution impacts of the proposed coal export terminals. It was yet another sign of how controversial these projects are in the Northwest, and a reminder that these ill-advised coal export plans will ultimately affect us all, and the fate of our planet.