Effects of coal terminals go beyond extra traffic

What does a coal terminal in Southwest Washington have to do with Tacoma?

Hundreds of people attended last week’s hearing on the proposed coal export terminal in Longview. The vast majority called on the permitting agencies to study the full range of potential impacts to Tacoma, Washington state and the region.

Coal companies want to export 44 million tons of coal from Longview and 48 million tons of coal from Bellingham every year. If both the proposed coal terminals are built, Tacoma could see an increase of 17 or more coal trains every day. Nine of those trains would be headed full to Bellingham. And the railroad, BNSF, has indicated it could send the eight empty trains daily from Longview north through the South Sound. Such a major increase in coal rail traffic would have adverse impacts on Tacoma and throughout Pierce County.

As the Oct. 16 News Tribune editorial noted, diesel exhaust from added coal train traffic would worsen our air quality. As a board member of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, I know the public health and economic impacts of reduced air quality — already poor enough that Pierce County periodically violates federal air pollution standards. Doctors, nurses and many others are concerned about health impacts from coal export. Those concerns are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m also concerned about consequences for our local economy. Tacoma is a port town. I support rail and exports as key economic drivers of our city and our region. But we need to understand the impacts to existing rail users, such as container traffic, commodities like grain and wheat, aerospace, and passenger rail, whose costs and travel times could go up as they get crowded out by longer and slower-moving coal trains. What about delays at train crossings for our emergency responders?

Who would pay, and how much would it cost, for new infrastructure to alleviate delays at already congested road crossings? The majority of those costs typically fall on taxpayers. Tacoma residents can ill afford those costs when our own neighborhood streets are failing.

Research has found that building just one underpass or overpass of a rail line can cost tens of millions of dollars, and state transportation officials have identified 29 crossing and highway intersections that may need improvements to accommodate more coal trains.

What about the impact to residential and commercial property value? A decline in property values would affect our city’s revenues — and our ability to pay for vital public services like schools, police and road maintenance. A recent study by the City of Seattle pegged potential losses between $270 million and $475 million among the city’s commercial, residential and industrial properties located within 600 feet of the tracks.

I am proud that Tacoma is investing heavily in our waterfront as a destination for living, dining, shopping, recreation and tourism. But we need to be aware of how increased noise, air pollution, vibration, traffic delays and other impacts would affect the viability of our waterfront.

Looking at the big picture of coal export also means considering how burning all that coal would accelerate climate change. Studies have shown exporting so much coal each year would mean more would be burned overall.

For Tacoma, climate change means more frequent and severe storm surges from rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. Climate pollution is making our oceans more acidic, killing sea life, including shellfish. Washington’s seafood industry generates more than 42,000 jobs in-state and contributes more than $1.7 billion in economic activity

In considering the proposed coal port at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, the state recognized that we can’t put blinders on and study just the site specific impacts. Coal export’s far-reaching effects extend far and wide.

I call on the state officials decide on the same approach for the proposed Longview export terminal. Anything less would be a denial that the future of Tacoma, the region and our changing climate are on the line.

Ryan Mello is a member of the Tacoma City Council. He also serves on the board of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and previously served as co-chair of the city’s Green Ribbon Task Force on Climate Change, producing the city’s plan for addressing global climate change.