Our Voice: Coal train decisions remain years away

The Pacific Northwest could become the largest exporter of coal in North America if three proposed coal-shipping projects garner approval.

Proponents of the projects point to an increase in jobs and a boon to the economy. Opponents say the environmental impacts make the proposals unconscionable.

Export terminals are proposed for sites in Boardman, Longview and north of Bellingham. Several other smaller projects had been discussed but companies have abandoned those plans for a variety of reasons.

The main purpose of the terminals would be to export coal mined in Montana and Wyoming to China, but they also could be used for other commodities, including crops grown here in Washington.

Most folks underestimate the power of rail in our nation's infrastructure. Trains play a huge part in getting goods across the country, as well as to export terminals. A great example is the RailEx distribution center near Wallula.

But we digress. Rail is a good thing. The issue here is coal, and both sides can skew statistics to make it look like the choice should be clear.

While there would be some inconveniences such as additional trains traveling through communities, including ours, the big deal-maker, or breaker, is the environment. This will be no short-term battle and millions will be spent by both sides.

The approval process will take years, and it is yet unclear what shape that process will take. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies are reviewing the projects.

Coal trains are not new to Washington. Coal already travels through by rail on its way to British Columbia. Zero is "The number of coal dust complaints received by the Northwest Clean Air Agency, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and Spokane Clean Air Agency, despite coal trains traveling through the region for years," according to createnwjobs.com, the website for the Northwest Alliance for Jobs and Exports, a proponent of the projects.

The coal companies have done a good job with public relations, even hiring several entities considered green in environmental circles to push the argument for increasing coal shipments and exports.

Opponents are well-crafted as well, playing on the potentially negative effects to the towns along the rail route and armed with statistics about the health effects of coal dust and the contribution coal burning makes to global warming.

A thorough environmental review is warranted based on the proposed projects, but the facts about the true effect to the environment must be clear and right now they're about as transparent as coal itself.

What we don't want is for opponents to expand the scope of environmental reviews to become even more unreasonable and thwart economic development in a state that already has a reputation for a perplexing regulatory environment.

Coal trains are already chugging through our state. The new projects would bring big dollars to Washington. Taking care of our land is important, and the environmental effects need to be considered.

While the determination will be years away, two things already are certain: Jobs are important to our state. And China is going to get its coal from somewhere.