SUNDAY, JUNE 17, 2012

Guest opinion: Coal train plans need careful study

As much as 150 million tons a year. More than 260 trillion pounds. Nearly 700,000 train coal cars. Any way you measure it, that’s a lot of coal.

On Feb. 23, Australian company Millennium Bulk Terminals applied for federal, state and county permits to export between 25 million and 44 million tons of coal annually through the port of Longview, Wash. On March 19, SSA Marine followed suit, applying for a permit to develop the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, Wash., to export 48 million tons of coal annually to China and India.

If built, these projects would be the largest coal export facilities on the West Coast and would mean a tenfold increase in the coal train traffic through Spokane. By our estimation, 50-70 coal trains would pass through Spokane daily on their way to and from strip mines in the Powder River Basin region to proposed ports in Longview, Cherry Point, and other coastal sites in Washington and Oregon, without any benefit to our city.

Before 6,000 more coal cars start rolling through town every day, we need to ask some tough questions about the effects on Spokane and surrounding farms, small towns and rural areas.

We know that Diesel Particulate Matter (DPM) from locomotives has significant health effects. Numerous studies have shown that DPM increases inflammation in the body, elevates the risks of death, heart attacks and strokes, and worsens asthma and other lung diseases. A recent study conducted by the National Cancer Institute shows that even low exposure to DPM increases the risk of cancer threefold. Our community has the right to know about potential public health and environmental risks.

Quality of life is another area of concern. Will coal trains reduce property values? Will more trains at railroad crossings delay first responders or add to traffic congestion? How will windblown coal dust from uncovered coal cars or air pollution from diesel trains affect our farmlands, the air we breathe, and our food and water sources? Will more coal trains increase the fire danger?

The concerns don’t stop there: How will this export plan affect small businesses and other commerce on the rails, and will increased noise and pollution make downtown a less desirable location? We must make sure that the multinational corporations involved in this unnecessary coal export plan aren’t allowed to profit at the expense of the people and commerce in Spokane and Eastern Washington.

On Monday at 6 p.m., the Spokane City Council is scheduled to hear public testimony and vote on a resolution that calls on government agencies to conduct a fair and comprehensive environmental review process of all Washington and Oregon coal export proposals. It’s important we make sure that any plan to export coal takes into account input from Eastern Washington, including public concerns regarding health, economic and environmental effects. Our leaders should think very carefully before they clear the way for 150 million tons of coal to pass through Spokane.

Amber Waldref is a member of the Spokane City Council. Dr. Robert Truckner is a pediatric emergency physician at Spokane Emergency Physicians.

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