The human costs of the coal terminal

Residents of Marysville, Wash., are right to be concerned about the potential negative impacts of a new coal terminal on their community, reports Jim DeCaro.

RECENTLY, HURRICANE Sandy laid devastation on the East Coast of the United States, leaving at least 50 dead and billions of dollars in repairs. When being talked about, the media touted the hurricane as a "once in a thousand year" storm. Such language can mislead people into believing that the storm is an exception, far removed from "normal" weather patterns.

The reality is that the conditions of our environment have been drastically changed over the last thousand years as a result of human causes. Massive increases in pollution are causing the average temperature of the planet to increase, in turn causing "normal" weather patterns to become exceptional.

At a recent meeting in the city of Marysville, Wash., a major source of the pollution--coal--was at the center of discussion the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

The meeting was chaired by a representative of the Sierra Club and was called to discuss and oppose the coal shipping plans of Peabody Energy and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

The coal giant intends to ship coal from five different ports in the Pacific Northwest. The primary port of discussion was Cherry Point, which after development is expected to process 45 billion tons of coal per year.

The Sierra Club's meeting was timed to coincide with upcoming regional meetings being hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Ecology. The two federal agencies have been charged with determining what impact a new coal terminal at Cherry Point might have. The answer to this question is directly related to the extent or scope of their study, which brings us back to Sierra Club's efforts.

The Sierra Club is trying to not only make the general public aware of these upcoming meetings, but also to coach local activists on how to make effective statements at the meetings themselves to be considered by the government agencies in determining the scope of the pending environmental impact study.

Peabody and BNSF have requested that the scope of the study be limited to the actual site of the new coal terminal--ignoring the fact that the coal does not just magically appear at the terminal, and magically disappear with the massive vessels it is to be shipped on. Unfortunately for the local communities on the routes of these trains, they likely will only feel the negative impacts of coal and their interests will be ignored--unless their concerns are taken into consideration through the scoping process.

The potential negative effects of coal on the surrounding communities include, but are not limited to, increased traffic congestion, smog and coal dust, increased noise, and potential foundation instability in landslide-prone areas near the tracks.

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OF PARTICULAR concern to the local community is the potential impact on the city of Marysville, which is part of the reason why the Sierra Club held the meeting at the city's Totem Middle School.

Marysville has 13 grade railway crossings that bisect the city. Eleven of these crossings are already at vehicle capacity when there is no train crossing, and they immediately fall into complete congestion when a train does cross. Small businesses have voiced concerns about the economic impact of being cut off from their customers, residents have complained about increased commutes and emergency services have raised the issue of safety (including when a patient in need is on the other side of the tracks and emergency services are unable to assist them due to a crossing coal train).

Locals who attended the meeting brought up these issues and more.

Of note, Jon Nehring, the mayor of Marysville, spoke at the meeting about a resolution passed by the City Council against the trains, and of his efforts to make residents aware of the situation by writing editorials in the local paper.

Unfortunately, when pressed by an audience member about what else the mayor might be able to do, Nehring's only response was to suggest that people write more letters to the local newspaper. While this tactic might make a few people more aware of the issue, it has resulted in only 25 people attending this meeting out of a city population of 60,000 in Marysville, and 104,000 in the close neighboring city of Everett.

The mayor has indeed made his own share of efforts writing articles and attending meetings, but it is not nearly enough to wake a slumbering city to the effects of the coal port that Big Coal is going to bring to its doorstep.

The latest estimates are that, following the construction of the Cherry Point terminal, 18 trains, 1.5 miles long, will move coal everyday for 21 years. Each of these trains are expected to cause a half hour of congestion at each crossing in Marysville, and to lose 500 pounds of coal dust along the route. The dust will pollute in the environment near the tracks and has been shown to increase asthma rates in the surrounding communities.

Not surprisingly, there will be a negative economic impact on the value of the properties near the routes. BNSF has conservatively estimated they will decrease in value by 5-6 percent.

While the number of rail crossings truly compounds the issues facing Marysville, all of the communities on the route to the coal port can expect longer train delays, increased asthma rates, environmental pollution, noise pollution and decreasing property values. These costs to society are externalized by a couple of companies in their pursuit of profit.

In addition, federal law limits the financial impact on railroad companies for any necessary infrastructure improvements to just 5 percent of the cost. Who is going to pay for the other 95 percent?

A list of all the meetings being held regarding the environmental impact study can be found online. Residents and activists owe it to the health of their communities to turn out to say "no" to the coal terminal.