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Coal train opponenets rally Gorge campaign

November 12, 2011

Coal train coming?

Not if Mark England, Brett VandenHeuvel and other Gorge residents have their way.

Train derailments, increased air pollution and long waits at rail crossings were just a few of the concerns raised over the prospect of coal transport trains rumbling through the Gorge should proposed coal exporting facilities be approved at two ports in Washington.

Opponents who spoke at a Tuesday forum in Hood River also spoke of the global impacts of coal export and use, and health issues in the U.S. and abroad.

"Burning coal for energy is a bad idea anywhere it happens on our planet and to that extent it is a backyard issue for all of us," England said.

The Australia-based Ambere Energy and Peabody and Arch coal firms are asking the ports of Longview and Bellingham to build facilities for export to Asia, primarily China. American coal use has declined 40 percent in the past 20 years, raising the need to export it across the Pacific, according to Cesia Kearns of the Sierra Club.

More than 130 people attended Tuesday's "Coal Hard Truth Forum" at Riverside Community Church in Hood River, where England, a nurse at La Clinica del CariƱo, called for collective action by doctors to oppose coal, and VandenHeuvel, director of Columbia Riverkeeper, pointed to the recent public campaign against a liquefied natural gas export facility as an example of how the coal campaign is a fight that can be won.

The event was hosted by Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper and the multi-state Power Past Coal coalition. The groups are mounting a campaign to stop the proposed coal export facilities.

At the end of the meeting, Hood River Sierra Club organizer Heather Kryczka passed out blank pieces of paper and asked attendees to spend the next 10 minutes writing hand-written letters to Gov. John Kitzhaber and Peter Goldmark, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands, urging them to speak out against the proposed coal terminals.

Opponents point to air pollution caused by coal dust, along with the impacts of rail traffic in the Gorge, and the global ramifications of increasing dependence on coal-fueled energy in China and other nations.

"The biggest impact on the Gorge is traffic," VandenHeuvel said.

"It would be a massive operation," VandenHuevel said of the plan to bring coal from eastern Montana through the Gorge, and then to the western ports.

"They strip-mine it, ship it through the Gorge and put it on giant tankers to China," he said.

If the coal facilities are built, Gorge residents could expect as much as 60 million tons of coal to pass through each year. That would equate to 12-15 trains every day, each one mile long, passing through full, and then returning empty.

As much as 50,000 pounds of coal, including dust, could be expected to fall off every train, according to VandenHeuvel.

England said "the most obvious primary concerns" are output of coal dust and diesel particulate matter from trains, in addition to noise exposure, and frequent long delays at rail crossings.

Emphysema, cancer, bronchitis, asthma and other cardiac and pulmonary ailments would be compounded, he said, in addition to rates of stress and depression from added noise. He also listed sleep disturbance and cognitive impairment, particularly in children, along with fatigue, hypertension and the increased likelihood of accidents and injuries.

"I am not an expert in coal, the health impact of coal or even the diseases that this plan would cause," England said. "I am familiar with the diseases and know that even without the addition of coal shipments these are diseases that are common and devastating to the persons who have them, their families, and to the health care system."

"I have come to believe it is the responsibility of those who work to preserve health to recognize the importance of the living environment on health and to act to ensure that our living environment is healthy," he said.

England said 160 physicians in the Bellingham area signed a position statement that "described the problem in terms specific to their region which is not much different than ours." The Whatcom doctors called for a "comprehensive health impact assessment," not just an environmental impact statement, addressing all health issues along the rail corridor.

Peter Cornelison of Friends of the Gorge raised the prospect of numerous trains in the Gorge carrying mass quantities of combustible material.

"The coal is known to arrive smoking," said Cornelison, adding that congestion on the rails is also an issue. He said the railroads would need to expand their tracks to accommodate increased traffic in the Gorge.

Burlington Northern operates in Washington and Union Pacific in Oregon. Cornelison said the Gorge route is already BN's second busiest line in Washington, and that the Union Pacific volume is scheduled to reach capacity by 2015.

Coal trains already traverse the Gorge, to and from coal-fired plants in eastern Washington and Oregon, including the Boardman plant, which is scheduled for decommissioning in 2012.

Cornelison and VandenHuevel noted that many rail crossings in the Gorge are at "road grade," resulting in extensive auto traffic delays if the coal export expands as planned. England noted that would also affect emergency vehicles' response times.

Panel members related the social and physical dynamics of greatly expanded rail traffic.

Cornelison and VandeHeuvel noted that 16 of the 26 windsurfing access points between Cascade Locks and Roosevelt are reachable only through road-grade crossings.

"My vineyard has the railroad right-of-way running right through the middle of it," Dallesport vineyard owner Don McDermott said.

McDermott, a Gorge vintner for 20 years and East Coast railroad executive before that, showed a video of a Pennsylvania coal train trailing a thick plume of dust.

"Dallesport is right in the teeth of the wind," McDermott said.

But the problems deepen when the coal settles on the ground, noted Cornelison and McDermott.

"The dust gets slick, and it acts like graphite; all that slag and rock base along the tracks shifts, almost like pudding," McDermott said. "The base the railroad has to run on is not so solid, especially when you add water to it. That's a danger."

McDermott said his key concerns are "chemical trespass" of coal dust falling on his vines, along with increased likelihood of derailments. He also said there are economic development reasons for opposing coal trains.

"Groups such as Columbia Gorge Winery Association spend a lot of money and try to promote the Columbia River Gorge as one of the most beautiful places in the world," said McDermott, who is also a Dallesport Community Council member. He said he is trying to rally official opposition in Klickitat County to coal transport opposition.

"I want to see if Klickitat County, which is supposed to be in favor of agriculture, will back me up on this," he said.

Solar power expenditures nationwide have doubled in recent years, said Kearns, regional representative for Sierra Club, and the coordinator of the collaborative Power Past Coal initiative, which hopes to turn the Gorge into a "coal-free zone."

She said the U.S. Air Force has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2020.

"If the military can do it, so can the rest of us," she said.

"We have a choice," said Kearns. "We can invest many millions in unreliable coal plants or we can invest in infrastructure that is healthier and cleaner for all of us."

The coalition meets again Nov. 16 at CGCC in The Dalles, at 7 p.m.

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