State needs to take a deep look at coal-export proposals

When the state reached agreement last year with Olympia-based TransAlta to phase out Washington’s last two coal-fired burners at the company’s Centralia power plant, it was widely lauded as a giant step toward improved air quality and cleaner energy.

By 2025, when the last of the two burners are shut down, Washington is poised to become one of just a few coal-free states.

But environmental and public health hazards related to coal are resurfacing and about to become a flash-point issue in the Northwest once again.

The state Department of Ecology, with support from Gov. Chris Gregoire, is sensibly calling for a cumulative environmental review of proposals to build coal-exporting mega-facilities near Bellingham and Longview.

Coal mining companies are looking to lucrative Asian markets, because many Midwest and East Coast power producers are converting their generators to natural gas. China, however, is projected to need 50 percent more coal by 2035 to fuel its aging power plants.

That coal could come from the Powder River Basin, on the Montana-Wyoming border, shipped by rail through Spokane to proposed ports at Cherry Point and Longview in Washington, and to three locations in Oregon.

That could bring massive quantities of open-top rail cars filled with coal down the Puget Sound coastline, through Olympia en route to Longview and Oregon. One study estimates the project would double the number of trains rumbling through Spokane, from 60 to 120 per day.

Critics say pollution from drifting coal dust from the uncovered coal cars and increased diesel emissions will erase the state’s gains in air quality. They also point to the potential marine dangers from hundreds of single-hulled cargo vessels navigating through the channels of Rosario and Haro straits.

Supporters of port expansion say it will create hundreds of new jobs and generate about $6 billion in economic benefits. That figure mostly relates to the Montana-Wyoming mining operations, and the state’s two ports, because most Northwest communities have little to gain from slow-moving, 11/2-mile trains carrying coal.

Trains laden with coal from Powder River already travel through Seattle to British Columbia. But the Canadian ports are at capacity and that country’s own coal miners have first option on any expansion.

It is perhaps ironic that the Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point, if approved, would become the largest coal export site in North America. Gov. John Spellman vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature in 1982 that would have allowed Chicago Bridge and Iron to build oil platforms at the same site. Spellman made a gutsy call during a prior recession because the project created unacceptable environmental risks for coastal waters.

Gregoire has said she won’t get in the way of the project, but that she would require an environmental review process. “We’re going to live by the law of the state of Washington,” she said.

Port promoters want that review confined to the specific port sites. According to the Washington Port Association, it “supports limiting analyses to the potential impacts of the project itself, not the broad overall movement of cargo across a region.”

Critics of increased coal-exportation from Washington want the review to consider all the impacts that occur from mine to port. Spokane Valley residents are worried about the effect twice as many trains will have on its numerous railway crossings.

Without a comprehensive cumulative review, which the DOE and the governor want, the Northwest cannot make informed decisions about balancing the economic benefits of doubling the nation’s coal exports against health and safety concerns.