Before any decisions on coal trains, we need information

Few industries can claim as much credit for the expansion and development of the United States as the railroads and coal. Before the railroads unified this country from east to west, communities relied on local fuels to power their growth. But the railroads brought large quantities of coal, and expansion accelerated.

Nearly two centuries later, coal remains the single most important commodity for railroads. Coal shipments account for more than 40 percent of its tonnage and as much as 50 percent of its operating profit.

But long trains carrying railroad car after car of coal are no longer a national unifying force. It’s quite the opposite. The harmful impacts of coal — from the devastation of Kentucky mountains to atmospheric damage from carbon emissions — have left the nation, and many Americans, conflicted.

Nowhere is this public debate more apparent and acute than in the Northwest.

A proposal to turn three ports in Washington and Oregon into terminals for exporting coal to Asia have Northwesterners evenly divided between a need for jobs and a concern for environmental and health issues.

Proponents of building the terminals to receive rail shipments of coal from Montana and Wyoming — as many as 18 trains of 125 coal cars per day at the Bellingham area proposed terminal — say the projects will create short-term and long-term family-wage jobs. And, they argue, Asia will find a way to get this coal with or without our help. So why not take the economic benefits?

For an economically depressed area, such as Longview, where one of the Washington ports would be built, the addition of 137 permanent good-paying jobs creates a serious temptation. Cowlitz County overall has a 60 percent free- and reduced-school lunch population.

Opponents object on many levels.

They say so many additional super-long trains passing through Washington’s grade-level railway crossings in both urban and rural areas will create unimaginable traffic congestion, and possibly life-threatening situations when first responders are blocked. While the coal mine operators and railroads pocket the profits, they are likely to pass off any intersection improvements to state taxpayers.

Critics fear pollution from drifting coal dust off the uncovered coal cars will foul wide swaths of communities, including many in Thurston County. Proponents downplay this aspect, but documents in a Sierra Club lawsuit cite BNSF railroad data showing each 120-ton car loses from 250 pounds to 700 pounds of dust and chunks.

In fact, critics say, BNSF argued for a tariff on coal shippers in a 2009 case at the federal Surface Transportation Board because drifting dust was destabilizing its railroad ties, which led to two 2005 derailments.

Polls show Northwest residents evenly split on their support for the coal export terminal projects, although support has dropped in the last year.

The decline may reflect citizens’ access to more information or President Barack Obama’s recently announced climate strategy that discourages coal. It could reflect other factors, such as the recent news about a drop in life span in northern Chinese attributed to health conditions caused by coal pollution.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber have proposed the most logical pathway to achieving clarity on this issue. The two governors have called on the federal government to undertake a comprehensive review before making any final decisions on allowing the ports.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced its plan to limit an environmental review to the specific sites. The governors are pressing for a broader geographic analysis that includes study of the traffic impacts and coal dust pollution.

Without such an analysis, the Northwest cannot make informed decisions about balancing the regional economic benefits of doubling the nation’s coal exports against health and environment concerns.