There are five different proposals to export massive quantities of coal to Asia through the Northwest. Any or all, if approved, would hurt the health, safety, property and economy of the Gorge and its residents.
The 150 million tons of coal proposed per year would travel though the Columbia Gorge along the cheapest route to these ports. The largest proposal is the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project in Bellingham, Wash.
Your public comment period ends Jan. 21.
Gateway Pacific intends to haul 48 million tons annually through the Gorge in open coal cars. Toxic coal dust and debris already line the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks through the Gorge, polluting land and waterways. On windy days anyone standing near the tracks when a coal train passes is liable to be pelted with coal debris blowing off the open cars.
This is from just a few coal trains per week. Imagine the impact of 10-30 more loaded coal trains per day, each a mile and a half long, spewing toxic coal dust into the air and onto the land and waterways for hundreds of miles.
BNSF studies estimate 500-2,000 pounds of coal dust blows from each of the 120 rail cars per train en route. At 30 trains per day, that’s as much as 2.6 billion pounds of coal dusting towns, people and crops along the route annually. You might think BNSF could just cover the trains, but when Wyoming coal costs just about $10/ton, it’s too expensive. Eighty percent of the cost of coal comes from transportation, and that’s not counting shipping to China.
The wide-ranging health dangers of coal dust and diesel exhaust exposure include lung and heart disease, cancer, poisoning by heavy metals like mercury, and increased rates of asthma, especially in children. Coal is heavy and requires up to twice the locomotives per train as lighter freight, resulting in more diesel fumes. Orchard and vineyard owners don’t want coal dust coating their produce and harming agricultural production.
Railways in the Gorge are already near capacity. Additional slow-moving mile-long coal trains will disrupt commerce and emergency services by blocking grade-level crossings for hours per day, isolating businesses, hospitals and people from each other.
Every summer we have wildfires caused by trains, and there have been several train derailments in the region in the last 10 years. On July 2, 2012, a coal train crashed in Mesa, Wash., just outside the Gorge. Coal trains raise the risk for derailments because coal dust accumulates in the rail ballast and softens it so that trains tip over more easily. Track fires would have extra fuel from coal accumulations on the ground.
We can’t afford to harm our tourist industry for coal trains bringing only losses, costs and pollution to our local economy. Coal exports through the Gorge would degrade the quality of your life and harm local residents and our vibrant tourist economy.
Three years ago, National Geographic Traveler magazine ranked the Columbia Gorge as one of the sixth-best tourist destinations in the world. Blessed with scenery, stewardship and landscapes of international significance, it is ranked higher than all U.S. national parks. Visitors from all over the world come here for scenery and recreation, not to see unending lines of coal trains.
The science community already pinpoints Asian coal-burning power plants as a source of Oregon’s acid rain problem, affecting crops, fisheries and native plants in Oregon and the American west. More coal to Asia means more carbon into the global atmosphere and more warming, leading to “weather events” and climate change.
Lastly, the argument that Oregon will lose potential jobs without coal trains does not hold up. Few jobs would exist at unloading facilities, and none would be added in the affected towns along the rails. How many people in your town have jobs because of the traffic of corn and fertilizer (not its production) on the rails?
Coal exports are a net loss to Oregon. Any jobs will be in cleanup and at taxpayer expense.
NOW is your chance to speak out. Go to www.eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/get-involved/comment.
Tell the Washington Department of Ecology and the Army Corp of Engineers to thoroughly examine the impacts of transporting coal through the Gorge in the environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal.
Gorge residents and elected officials must provide comments by Jan. 21. Please be as specific as possible.
For more information on coal exports visit www.gorgefriends.org and coaltrainfacts.org.
Polly Wood of Hood River has served on the board of Friends of the Columbia Gorge and is a former business owner.