Paul_K_Anderson_Coal Export photo

A coal train in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Paul K. Anderson.

There’s been a lot of buzz about coal exports lately, but if I was a betting woman, I’d say the smart money is on these coal industry pipe dreams never becoming a reality. That’s because local communities that would receive the brunt of the pollution from transporting all that coal are standing up and saying no, one after another. Communities across the Pacific Northwest continue to band together in opposition to coal export terminals and the massive increase in rail traffic that would come with it.

Especially breath-taking and poignant was this statement from 57 Northwest tribal communities calling “on the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to conduct a full environmental analysis for all six proposals to transport and export coal through their shared lands and waters.” (PDF)

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One image that has remained with me all week is that of the Lummi Nation people in Washington Statepeople burning a giant check to symbolize rejection of selling their Treaty Rights to develop a coal export terminal on their ancestral land at Cherry Point.

From that article:

“No deals, thank you,” said Fran James, 88, a revered tribal elder called as a witness to the ceremony. “All of our elders have always told us: ‘Take care of this place.'”

These Northwest tribes understand the massive health and environmental effects building these coal export terminals and expanding rail traffic would have on the region.

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Longtime tribal activist Billy Frank, Jr., also spoke eloquently on the reasons to oppose these plans.

“The idea of a half-dozen new coal export terminals in western Washington and Oregon — and the hundreds of trains and barges running from Montana and Wyoming every day to deliver that coal — would threaten our environment and quality of life like nothing we have seen before,” said Frank, the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission.

“(T)hese export facilities and increase train traffic would come at a great cost to our health, natural resources, and communities.”

Thousands of people have stood up at public hearings across Washington to demand comprehensive, thorough environmental impact statements for the proposed coal export terminals and connected rail and barge traffic. And in Oregon, community by community (Portland just last week), concerned residents want the same.

Indeed, just a couple of months ago, one of the six coal export proposals in the Northwest was abandoned by the developer. In August, RailAmerica shelved its plans to build a coal export terminal in Grays Harbor, Washington, after a long campaign by the Sierra Club and our allies in the Power Past Coal coalition.

I am inspired by this ever-growing number of individuals, communities, and constituencies resisting U.S. coal exports, and calling attention to its harmful effects from mine to rail, from port to plant. The impacts cannot be considered in isolation by only evaluating the terminals themselves.

The Lummi Nation leadership powerfully captured the kind of responsibility we have to protect our communities now and for future generations: Decisions made in Washington State affect neighbors in Oregon, people from the Lummi nation, and people in communities abroad.

With all of this opposition at home, it’s also important to note that the specter of increased international demand for coal may just be an illusion. As a recent Sierra Club study found, at current prices, countries like India simply can’t afford US coal one it has been shipped across the ocean. And the grand plans for lots of new coal plants in Asia and China may be illusory as well — remember, back in 2002 the US had plans for 200 new coal plants on the drawing board, but 174 of those plants have been defeated or abandoned to date, due to advocacy and market forces.

More hearings on the coal export issue are coming up in the Pacific Northwest. If you live there, we encourage you to get involved.

We must all stand together to ensure that, just as we are reducing our coal use here in the US, we don’t just export that coal — and that pollution — to other countries, devastating local Northwest communities in the process.

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