RICHLAND -- Coal trains could help the Northwest's economy but harm its environment, the Columbia Basin Badger Club heard Friday as speakers pro and con faced off in Richland.
Proposed export terminals at Boardman, Longview and north of Bellingham would create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue, said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports, a coalition supporting building the facilities.
The terminals would be used primarily for coal, but she said they also would be used to export other commodities, including those grown on Washington farms.
If Washington is going to support growth and trade, it cannot single out one commodity for expanded regulatory review, she said. Coal is a legal commodity that the nation has in great abundance, she said.
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"It's not wheat," countered Madeleine Brown of Richland. "It's toxic. It's hazardous. It makes people sick."
The state needs a comprehensive, cumulative look at environmental impacts that would be caused by more coal trains, not just at the terminals but along the routes of the trains in places like the Tri-Cities and Columbia Gorge, Brown said.
She's taken on the topic as a state resident and has started a Facebook page called Allies and Friends Fighting Northwest Coal Exports.
In Pasco the trains could cause up to five hours of delay per day at crossings, she said, quoting a Pasco city staff assessment on an increase of 32 trains through the city. The preferred route would take the trains through Pasco, across the Columbia River on the rail bridge parallel to the cable bridge, through Finley, by Kennewick's Kamiakin High School and through Badger Canyon.
Tri-City residents also would have to put up with more noisy trains and diesel exhaust, Brown said.
The coal, which would be mined in Montana and Wyoming, would be exported to China. But pollution from China and the rest of Asia is being carried over the Pacific Ocean and dumped on the West Coast of the United States in increasing amounts, Brown said.
Coal trains derail and coal dust poisons, she said. It contains toxins that include mercury and arsenic, she said.
But what really upsets her is the subsidization of climate change through the sale of coal on public lands to private companies, which then rape the land with strip mines, she said.
"This is our coal," she said. "Our government sells it for a pittance."
An argument can be made that supporting the coal trains is the better option for the environment, Hennessey said.
China will be using coal for the next several years and the coal from the Powder River Basin of the western United States would allow it to use "a better, cleaner coal," she said.
If Northwest export terminals are not developed, Canada is interested in exporting the U.S. coal, bringing coal trains through Washington, she said.
Exporting more coal would increase rail traffic, she agreed, but said that's a sign of the economy improving, she said. Rail use is low now in the state, she said.
Coal transported by rail is sprayed with surfactant to reduce dust by 85 percent, she said.
It only would be a problem in the Tri-Cities when the wind blows, Brown said, drawing laughter.
Despite vocal opposition in Seattle and Tacoma to the coal terminals, 55 percent of the state supports the coal exports, Hennessey said. They will build export capacity that will help cities around the state, she said. Now 40 percent of jobs in the state are linked to trade, she said.
"I think there are ways to do this that everyone wins," she said.
Brown agreed that coal projects would create jobs, but said she expected proponents of the projects have overstated the number. "There are ways to make good jobs without poisoning people," she said.