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Guest opinion: Fight coal exports, trains

Imagine 40 coal trains a day added to the trains now moving through our communities. Coal companies are hard at work to make this happen.

As the United States retires coal-fired power plants and switches to cleaner fuels, the coal industry seeks new buyers in Asia’s fast-growing markets. Vast amounts of coal would be shipped by rail across Northwest states to the Pacific Coast and on to Asia. We think this deserves a closer look.

The Powder River Basin in Eastern Montana and Wyoming holds billions of tons of coal, owned or leased by Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and others. The companies are pushing for huge new coastal terminals to be built near Bellingham and Longview to handle increased shipments primarily bound for China. Coal would be hauled on BNSF Railway and Montana Rail Link track.

The increase in train numbers depends on many factors. Based on combined terminal projections, 110 million tons of coal yearly would require more than 40 dedicated trains a day (20 loaded, 20 returning empties).

China and bordering Mongolia have abundant coal reserves. However, China recently became a net importer of coal, mainly to fuel hundreds of coal-fired power plants and to manufacture exports.

Coal is a risky business. In the 1980s, Los Angeles and Portland built terminals to ship coal to Asia. Prices fell, the terminals closed, and both cities lost millions.

Those who live along the rail lines that would carry the coal through Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington share concerns about the hidden costs to health, safety, the environment and pocketbook.

• Railroad engines burn diesel. Documented health effects of diesel emissions near busy rail yards (Spokane and Portland) include chronic heart and lung disease, and asthma. The very young and elderly are most affected. Cancer is also implicated.

• Pollution released from burning coal, including toxins like mercury, is carried from China and elsewhere back to us on worldwide air currents. Contrary to the coal industry’s barrage of “clean coal” ads, coal remains the dirtiest major fuel. The United States just passed a law limiting mercury and toxic emissions from power plants. China has no such law.

• Waiting up to 10 minutes at rail crossings in bisected communities may only be an inconvenience, unless an ambulance, firetruck or wildfire is involved. Then minutes count.

• Trains disrupt people’s sleep, affecting their alertness and health. Whistles and the noise of cars coupling can be heard for miles.

• Property values are affected by rail traffic, noise and limited access.

• Increased train/vehicle collisions are linked to the number of trains.

• Some rail infrastructure upgrades will be paid for by communities and the federal government.

• The rail industry says 500 pounds or more of coal dust per car is lost in transit. That can destabilize rail beds, contributing to derailments. Are mitigations adequate?

• Burning billions of tons of coal will increase greenhouse gases that can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, warming the Earth, with devastating results. This goes against worldwide efforts to break the fossil fuel habit. The best way to protect the climate is to stop the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels, coal being by far the worst.

Are we more concerned about the profits of coal companies than the future of our children and grandchildren? With these terminals, we make a choice for future generations. Let’s hope we make the right one.

Please join the coal export dialogue in your community, and contact Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, (360) 902-1004. Ask him to “Do everything in your power to stop coal export.” For more information, contact

Jan Hoem is chairman of Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow.


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