Portland says no to coal

December 13, 2012

There's a burgeoning movement against a major expansion of coal-export operations in the Pacific Northwest, reports Andrea Hektor.

MORE THAN 800 people attended a December 6 public meeting in Portland hosted by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to express their opposition to the proposed construction of a massive coal terminal at a nearby port.

The Australian firm Ambre Energy wants to transport 8.8 million tons of coal per year by train from Montana or Wyoming to the proposed Coyote Island Coal Terminal to be built at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. From there, the coal would be barged to an ocean port via the Columbia River and eventually shipped to buyers abroad.

Before the meeting began, opponents of the proposed new facility organized a rally while a bike brigade repeatedly circled the block, chanting anti-coal slogans. Santa Claus handed out bags of coal dust and factsheets about coal-dust pollution to people on their way in to the meeting as well as passersby.

The terminal is one of five in the Pacific Northwest currently under review by state and federal agencies. All of the proposed terminals would receive coal shipped via train from Central and Midwestern states, where it would then be transferred to ships mostly bound for China.

Activists pack an auditorium for the public hearing on the proposed coal terminal
Activists pack an auditorium for the public hearing on the proposed coal terminal (Portland Indymedia)

The scale of the operations would be massive. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham, Wash, could export as much as 54 million tons of coal a year at full capacity, which is double the total of all U.S. coal exports last year.

As with other public meetings and hearings in the region, people came from around the state to show their opposition. A contingent from Salem--45 minutes south of Portland--made up the largest out-of-town contingent. No meetings or hearings are currently planned for the Salem area, despite the fact that residents will be affected by coal trains passing through the city and outlying areas.

As one person who drove up put it, "The apartment I live in is about 25 meters from the proposed rail line to Coos Bay, so clean air is really important to me. And the noise pollution, too."

THE STANDING-room-only event--as noted a number of times by the moderator--was the largest public meeting in DEQ's history, and while officially termed a "public meeting," many in the crowd considered it a hearing of sorts.

The moderator was concerned about not letting the room become "unruly" in any way, with attendees told they could not speak or make any noise in response to any of the questions or comments. The only gesture allowed was raising hands to show agreement with a speaker, which happened during almost every question.

The format was intended to be question-and-answer, with speakers allowed only 30 seconds to ask their question, which was then immediately followed by a response from representatives of the DEQ in the room.

While the crowd attempted to adhere to the "stay-quiet" ground rules, there was obvious frustration with many responses given by DEQ officials. Within the first 15 minutes of the meeting, two things became immediately clear. First, the DEQ actually regulates very little, and second, the majority of attendees wholeheartedly opposed the proposed coal export plans.

The majority of questions focused on the proposed terminal's health and environmental impacts--in other words, the sort of things one would imagine that the Oregon DEQ would regulate or have a say in. People raised questions about potential coal fires, mercury pollution in drinking water and coal-dust exposure for humans and agriculture.

But each of these questions was met with the same response. "I feel like a broken record," said Mark Fisher, DEQ senior permit writer. "That area is beyond our scope. All we're talking about tonight is the terminal itself."

DEQ only issues permits for "stationary sources" of air pollution, Fisher said, and will only consider the air pollution produced by the coal terminal in Boardman when the coal is unloaded from coal train cars, stored in a covered facility and transferred to barges. "We do not [issue] permits [for] mobile sources," Fisher said, "and we wouldn't typically require modeling of mobile sources...There are regulations on a national level for emissions from mobile sources."

Thus begging the question from many people: If the DEQ is not responsible for the mobile impacts, then who is? And where is it possible to provide input as affected members of the public? When Fisher didn't dodge the question outright, he told attendees that the Army Corps of Engineers would have jurisdiction over the project on a national level. But the Army Corps has leeway to make its own decisions regarding what it considers to be environmentally sound, so their decisions are subject to very little oversight.

The fact that the coal is covered while actually at the Boardman facility is a major talking point for coal supporters, but this ignores the fact that the largest amounts of coal-dust pollution will likely occur while the coal is being shipped on trains or transferred from train to barges. And these arguments say nothing about the larger environmental concerns with burning more fossil fuels and releasing into the atmosphere additional carbon dioxide, which is a major contributor to climate change.

OTHER MEETINGS about the proposed terminals across the Northwest have also attracted huge audiences.

In Bellingham, Wash., close to 2,000 residents packed Squalicum High School on October 27. Walter Young, a longtime Bellingham resident and retired commercial fisherman who depends on the local waterways, says the proposed coal export terminals would directly threaten the safety and livelihood of his family and community.

"The bottom line is we need to end the mining, exporting, and burning of dirty coal," said Young at that hearing. "Coal companies are plundering our environment at the expense of clean air, clean water and public health."

While the Portland and Bellingham meetings are some of the largest to have happened, similar meetings have taken place in Spokane and Ferndale, Wash., and Boardman, Ore. About 1,000 people attended the Ferndale meeting, and a few hundred showed up at the Boardman and Spokane meetings.

At the meetings, opponents of the terminals wear red and have generally been the majority of the crowd, while supporters typically show up in green. In a particularly slimy and underhanded move, Ambre Energy hired day laborers to act as stand-ins at the Bellingham and Spokane meetings, outfitting them in green shirts to make the "pro-coal" forces appear larger and to reserve speaking slots for those in favor of export plans.

Residents of the Northwest are making it clear that they oppose these coal export operations. The impact on the environment and the contribution to global warming that the mining, shipping and burning of coal produce are significant, and the immediate and long-term health effects of coal-dust pollution are something that should be considered unacceptable by both public and private institutions.

Ambre Energy will ram through its plans for the terminals if it's allowed to, and at this point, it's clear that Oregon's DEQ doesn't plan to offer any resistance. Only a determined fight-back by the affected communities will stop them. A future meeting is scheduled on December 13 in Seattle, and all those opposed should attend in order to show their disapproval and then get involved with the ongoing effort to mobilize an opposition to the terminals.

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