Possible coal trains in Gorge spark action

October 15, 2011

"I Hear the Train a Comin'" is not the anthem local health conscious residents want Gorge communities to be singing anytime soon.

In particular, when a proposed massive transportation of coal along the Columbia River rail system looms in the near future.

The Northwest isn't the typical site of either coal production or environmental activism against its production, so how does coal concern residents of the Gorge?

The Sierra Club recently began an education and action campaign alerting residents to a proposal now underway to transport 130 million tons of coal per year through the Columbia River Gorge - potentially in open train cars.

"Each stage in the life cycle of coal - extraction, transport, processing, and combustion - generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment."

That is the conclusion of a 2009 scientific review article from the Annals of New York Academy of Sciences journal, reported by Paul Epstein, M.D. of Harvard medical school.

Heather Kryczka, Hood River Sierra Club representative notes that a local coalition opposing the transports is in development and a speaker's forum will be offered within a few weeks for citizens to seek information and learn more about the Sierra Club's outreach campaign. Additional information may be obtained from the Sierra Club website.

According to a Dec. 13, 2010 article in the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Cannon recent CEO of Millennium Bulk Terminals, a shipping subsidiary for Austrailian-based coal mining company, Ambre Energy, has said, "China is building coal-fired electric power plants like crazy. They have a near-insatiable appetite for electricity over there. So they're going to burn coal."

According to Kryczka, "Several coal companies are proposing to export coal to China amounting to over 20 train trips a day, with each train over a mile long," dieseling along the tracks in the Gorge.

The trains would be carrying coal from Ambre Energy mines and others in Wyoming and Montana to planned coal export shipping terminals along the Columbia and northwest coastline, with final destinations in China and elsewhere.

Opponents site concerns over diesel pollution from transportation and coal dust dispersion while in transit, plus smoke from unregulated combustion overseas.

Coal in any form contains toxic heavy metals - including mercury, arsenic and lead - and exposure to those metals is linked by numerous scientific studies to cancer, birth defects, heart disease and increased asthma and lung disease in children and adults.

Local retired physician Mike Berlly, a former clinical associate professor from Stanford University, became aware of the impending coal trains and decided to research the effects of coal dust on human health, among other coal concerns.

"I oppose coal exports because mining, transporting and burning coal harms people's health," noted Berlly.

"Transporting coal through the Gorge via uncovered trains will spew toxic coal dust into the air and water, threatening our health. Not to mention all the diesel that will be burned to transport it, polluting our air.

"I've also found research linking coal dust on tracks with increased incidents of train derailment and wildfires. Imagine that here on the banks of the Columbia," said Berlly.

Amanda Hoey, executive director of the Mid Columbia Economic Development District, when asked for any known economic benefit to Gorge communities said, "Unfortunately I do not know of anyone immediately who could provide a statement, but will check with some of my local economic development colleagues."

With risks related to anticipated coal dust dispersion, increased diesel combustion emissions, potential wildfires or derailment and the associated health dangers from exposure, local citizens have begun a "phone your Governor" campaign, registering protests over the proposal.

Coal export terminals are now proposed for three Oregon locations - Coos Bay, Boardman and St. Helens. Washington has three pending at Bellingham, Gray's Harbor and Longview.

Many sources, including the 2010 Los Angeles Times investigative piece, note that American consumption of coal is being reduced due to environmental concerns. The Boardman, Ore. coal- fired electricity plant is currently slated to close in 2020. Likewise, there is a growing level of understanding regarding hidden costs of coal combustion.

"Accounting for the damages" related to the transport and combustion of coal, states Epstein's study, "conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive."

With decreased domestic demand for coal and costlier environmental regulations reducing potential profits, companies are seeking markets abroad.

Prior to his reassignment from Millennium in August, Cannon said, of the recent Longview, Wash. terminal property acquisition, "At a time when Washington State is struggling with unprecedented revenue shortfalls, this project will bring needed revenues to fund essential city, county and state programs and services," according to company statement on the Ambre Energy website.

With economic benefits from coal transport limited to individual export terminal communities, opponents like the Sierra Club are encouraging a broader view of the cost benefit ratio for the entire region.

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