A hearing will be held on Dec. 4 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Spokane County Fairgrounds for residents of the Spokane area to voice their opinions and ask questions about the proposed coal train route that would pass through Spokane. This hearing is meant to gauge public opinion and to address concerns regarding public safety, traffic disruption, air quality and the potential economic effects these coal trains could have on local businesses and families.
The Sierra Club is campaigning against the transportation of coal from the Powder River Basin in southern Montana and northern Wyoming to ports in western Washington. Proposed port locations include Longview in southwestern Washington and Cherry Point, which is about 15 miles north of Bellingham. The coal would be shipped from these ports to countries such as China where the coal would be burned to produce electricity.
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign has gained the support of over 230,000 people nationwide according to their website. The campaign takes credit for helping close down 124 coal burning plants in the United States so far and hopes to close down 398 more plants in coming years.
The Sierra Club is concerned that even if coal is no longer burned in the United States, countries like China which have more relaxed environmental policies could damage air quality for everyone and accelerate climate change through increased carbon emissions.
Ben Covino, Gonzaga sophomore and environmental studies major, has been volunteering with the Sierra Club to spread awareness about the impact coal trains would have in Spokane.
“We can’t burn it here because it’s so dirty and we have the Clean Air Act,” said Covino. “If it burns there it’s going to come back through the jet stream.”
Covino said that the coal is sprayed with water or another substance to become denser and to resist sending particles into the air, but the trains are uncovered, allowing a significant amount of coal to escape as dust. Covino said the type of coal that would be exported is of such low quality that is can’t be burned in the United States which is why China would be buying it.
“We aren’t really getting much out of this,” said Covino. “We’re just getting lungs full of dust and coal.”
In recent years, China has become one of the world’s leading importers of coal. According to the World Coal Association, in 2011 China produced 3471 megatons of coal and imported another 190 megatons making China both the biggest overall producer and importer of coal. This means that five percent of the coal China consumes is imported.
Coal is still a major factor in world energy production and worldwide coal consumption is on the rise, not the decline. According to the International Energy Agency based in Paris, coal is used to produce 40 percent of the world’s electricity needs.
Groups like America’s Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents many large coal producers, argues that there is a surplus of coal that is domestically available. Their website states that coal would meet domestic demands for more than 200 years and would help bring energy independence to America.
The issue of burning coal has attracted the attention of people like Michael Bloomberg who donated $50 million dollars to the Beyond Coal Campaign in July of 2011. People like Bloomberg don’t buy into the idea that coal is the best solution.
In a recent New York Times article, Northwest Indian tribes have voiced concern that spills and dust from moving this coal could disturb fishing habitats and harm sacred sites. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians even passed a resolution demanding a collective environmental impact statement instead of project-by-project reports.
According to Conservation Northwest, the Washington State Department of Ecology and US Army Corps of Engineers are producing a joint Environmental Impact Statement for shipping terminals in Washington.
The EPA stated that sulfur dioxide emissions are one of China’s major environmental problems. Unless removed before combustion, sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas that is emitted during the burning of coal and petroleum products.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal imports and consumption in the United States have been on the gradual decline since 2009. Coal exports have been rapidly increasing during this same period. In fact, exports are 31.1 percent higher than the first quarter this year.
In the first quarter of 2009, 13.3 million short tons of coal were exported from the United States. In the first quarter of 2012, 28.6 million short tons—more than double the 2009 figures—of coal left the United States.
To learn more about coal trains in Spokane, check out the Bulletin’s article from last year at http://www.gonzagabulletin.com/article_661f5fb7-410e-5e1d-a687-27fa54470a65.html.
And make sure to check out the videos below: