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Are trainloads of coal in Washington’s future?

Thu., April 14, 2011, 11:06 a.m.

Efforts under way to spew CO2, mercury, other pollutants

Editor’s note. On March 28, Sierra Club’s Brad Hash shared the latest on the Trans Alta coal-fired plant, the only Washington state coal-fired power plant, which has announced plans to begin phasing out production operations here, but seems eager to feed demand in other parts of the world. (Look at ‘related stories’ for background.)

At the meeting were a variety of concerned citizens, including David Camp, who was motivated to share his opinions and observations, but didn’t want to be limited by slim word counts available in traditional print publications.

Down to Earth has some space available for community commentary/guest columns under this Northwest Green Notes section. While there are some limits and restrictions, and no compensation will be given, we welcome any submissions for consideration. Please send to

The local media is finally beginning to notice the planned coal export operation that would make Spokane the conduit connecting the world’s largest coalfields in Wyoming and Montana with the world’s largest coal burners in China and India.

For background, mining giants Peabody Energy, of St. Louis, and Australia’s Ambre Energy are rushing us to construct two huge new coal ports on Washington’s coast, at Longview and Bellingham. These would be the largest coal export terminals on earth when completed, each possibly shipping more than 50 million tons of coal per year to Asia. This coincides with the Obama administration’s recent decision to open vast new stretches of Wyoming to coal mining.

The big news for us is that nearly all of this coal would pass through Spokane on BNSF trains.

Unless we act soon, Spokane is going to see millions of tons of coal rumbling and blaring through downtown on perhaps 45 extra trains per day, each more than a mile long, spewing coal dust and diesel exhaust such as we’ve never seen.

A quick calculation based on BNSF data suggests that the uncovered coal cars from those 45 trains could discharge around 1,400 tons of coal dust on the way to port — each day, for decades to come.

This is all part of an industrial grand plan to offshore air pollution, sending dirty coal overseas because our clean air laws and climate consciousness prevent us from burning it here, as if we don’t share the same rapidly cooking climate.

This also flies in the face of the stated policies of Washington and Oregon, which have both pledged to shut down their last coal fired power plants, joining nine other states and provinces in the Western Climate Initiative, all of whose members promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s like bragging that you’ve quit smoking crack to improve the neighborhood, while selling tons of it to your neighbors.

Worse yet, all this coal will produce almost no economic benefit to Spokane. There will be few new jobs because BNSF is highly automated, and the ports would be as well. Nearly all the money will be vacuumed away to distant corporate headquarters—some halfway around the world—while we’ll be stuck with tons of toxic filth and noise around the clock.

There is also a somewhat larger issue: literally everyone else on Earth will suffer as well.

This huge new Asia-bound coal conveyor will vastly speed the destruction of the world’s climate and oceans. Every major national scientific academy and every relevant scientific reviewing body has agreed for years that we are warming the climate and the seas, and we know that coal is the main culprit.

NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies Chief Scientist James Hansen says coal is fully 80 percent of the climate problem; it is the foulest fuel and the easiest to replace with clean energy, yet coal consumption is growing like crazy in Asia, where oil is scarce and energy demand is skyrocketing.

The problem is amplified by Sino-American politics. As you may recall, we owe the Chinese money—more than a trillion bucks. Meanwhile, the Chinese want more coal. Remember that line from “The Godfather”, when Don Corleone does a favor: “Someday I’ll call upon you to do a service for me”?

As the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters, the U.S. and China are indispensible to any meaningful global agreement to save the climate. Until both our nations agree to reduce coal use, there is little hope that the rest of the world will unite. So it’s up to us, and the most critical climate issue now runs right through the middle of Spokane.

We must raise our voices because the climate is degrading beyond even the gloomiest forecasts of earlier decades. Since the 1950s half of Arctic sea ice has vanished ahead of schedule, as has 40 percent of oceanic phytoplankton, the basis of most sea life. Continental drought has doubled, storms have grown more destructive, and the latest studies by the UK’s Hadley Centre predict warming in the Arctic could be 27 degrees above the 20th century norm by 2050—well within the lifetimes of most people alive today.

The next report on this from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change is expected in 2013, and, although the IPCC is among the most conservative scientific authorities, the report promises to be a shocker; the next report after that will be in 2020, and we can assume it will be even more apocalyptic.

The problem is feedback cycles. If you’ve ever nursed a weak or elderly person through a series of mutually reinforcing illnesses, you know the drill; the bleeding cancer prevents use of the blood-thinning heart meds, so the heart grows weaker and drives fluid into the lungs, which brings on pneumonia, and so on.

In the same way, our warming of the climate melts the world’s reflective ice, which makes Earth absorb more solar heat; forests dry out and burn, sending more carbon skyward and further speeding warming; arctic permafrost melts and releases methane, a greenhouse gas 24 times stronger than CO2; the oceans warm and acidify, absorbing less carbon and melting ice-locked methane on the seafloors, etcetera. It’s a cascading effect.

How do we know? Because it’s all happened before, when runaway greenhouse warmings were triggered by ancient flood basalt outpourings like those of Eastern Washington.

Scientists studying this include UW paleontologist Peter Ward and climatologist David Battisti, who have examined mantle plume basalts at length, finding that the largest of them—including flows in India and Siberia—generated enough CO2 to apparently start greenhouse warming cycles that killed most life on Earth, turning continental interiors to deserts, putrefying oceans and filling the air with poisonous hydrogen sulfide.

“Under A Green Sky,” Ward’s book, details those ancient horrors. His point is that we are now creating a similar effect, only much faster, and we do not want to go there.

Even the world’s largest, smartest business consultancies and reinsurance firms are getting worried. McKinsey, Munich Re and Swiss Re are predicting rapidly rising costs; from more storm wreckage, more crop failures, and more turmoil like what we see in Libya and Egypt.

The good news is that the cost of halting further damage is tiny; less than 0.5 percent of global GDP according to McKinsey and perhaps 2 percent according to Stern Review. We just invested 10 times that to bail out our wayward banks and insurers.

With cost/benefit analyses like these, there is little question that we will eventually come to our senses. Just as mankind started this greenhouse warming, we will stop it…but it begins with leaving coal in the ground. In Spokane it is very much in our interest to protect the climate.

Then there’s mercury pollution. Due largely to mercury from East Asian coal burning, fish from Northwest waterways are becoming dangerous to eat. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has already issued a statewide advisory against pregnant women and young children eating fish from Washington waters.

A recent study by NOAA and Oregon State University shows that a growing wave of airborne mercury has been streaming across the Pacific from Asia for years, condensing and falling here in the Northwest rains. That will grow worse.

What does Spokane gain from thousands of uncovered coal trains, massive worldwide climate disasters and toxic mercury from the skies?

Let’s end this calamity before it begins. Once ports are built and trains are rolling, the system will be nearly impossible to halt. I urge everyone in Spokane to speak up. Let your city, county, state and federal officials know that you oppose the construction of the Longview and Bellingham coal ports, so we can live up to our pledge to protect the world’s climate, plus our state’s lakes and rivers.

David Camp is a concerned citizen and parent who also owns Spokane marketing agency Camp Creative.


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