By Patricia F. Austen


Big Coal interests pursue hot opportunities to export coal along the Columbia River. Big Coal developers currently plan to open three major coal export terminals in our region.

Coal train in Washington State

Coal train in Washington State

A few weeks ago, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) responded to Big Coal’s proposed Morrow Terminal near Boardman, Oregon by approving a minor air quality permit. At the same moment, DEQ also imposed an additional water-quality permit requirement to protect the Columbia River drinking water and salmon runs.


Good News

Coal export enterprises promise to bring union jobs to northwest rural communities, add valuable tax revenues, and send polluting coal offshore rather than burn it in the U.S.

Market experts predict the coal export market will grow, serving trade partners in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and their carbon energy demands may likely increase in the near future.

Even better, the coal slated to move through the Columbia River area is low-sulfur and so less polluting than other varieties, a plus for climate worries. The proposed coal export terminals appear to be state-of-the-art automated facilities with space to process up to 100 million tons of coal per year.


Global Impact

Burning coal anywhere around the world contributes directly to carbon pollution and global warming. Almost 100% of environmental science shows coal to be a major culprit in forcing climate change, related to increased numbers of major storms, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts and forest fires.

Mining coal in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, then exporting it from the northwest terminals will play a role in increasing climate change. Maybe the coal should stay in the ground where it is now.


Local Concerns

Transporting coal is a dirty, dangerous business that local residents and businesses would pay for directly and indirectly. Major concerns are coal dust, diesel fumes, rail traffic congestion, river barge congestion, spontaneous coal fires, and economic harm.

Coal dust rises from uncovered rail cars proposed to carry 100 million tons of coal from Montana through the Columbia River Gorge and on to terminal destinations.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad studies show up to 500 pounds of coal dust lost per rail car per trip. There are up to 130 rail cars per train. The coal dust blows and drifts into waterways, onto wetlands and farms, and across open lands.

Coal dust has toxic heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, barium and selenium – metals implicated in higher rates of asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, other lung diseases, heart ailments and cancer. Arsenic found in coal dust, can trigger skin damage, heart/circulatory-system diseases and cancer.

In 2013, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility recommended no coal exports through our region.

Diesel fumes, from train engine as well as tugboat engine exhaust, contain black carbon, benzene and dioxins. These fumes pose serious health risks for asthma, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Despite dangers to human health and the environment, Oregon DEQ does not currently regulate off-road diesel engine emissions, including those of trains and tugs.

Rail traffic congestion threatens grain farmers who use the Vancouver-Pasco rail line to deliver over half their production to local grain-export terminals.

Other businesses depend on rail deliveries as well. Rail choke points and bottlenecks will intensify as 40 extra coal export trains per day crowd the tracks, carrying millions of tons of coal to Asian markets.

Barge congestion will result from a 94% increase in barge traffic due to 48 coal export barges per week, risking tribal fishers, commercial anglers, and water recreation users such as windsurfers, sport anglers, and pleasure boaters.

This congestion will degrade the scenic beauty and pristine condition of our federally- designated Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, signed into law by President Reagan.

Spontaneous ignition of coal from the Powder River Basin is a serious safety concern. Despite precautions, if a coal barge or coal-filled rail car should ignite, fighting the fire on or near the river is a difficult problem with potentially dangerous consequences for water quality and public liability.

The majority of profits from coal export operations will flow away from the Northwest to Wall Street and to overseas companies like Australia’s Ambre Energy.

Along coal-export rail lines, property values predictably will decline. Busy coal barge traffic along the Columbia River will chase away water recreation activities.

Governor Kitzhaber’s Department of State Lands (DSL) has until April 30 to make a major decision on permits for coal exports. Add your voice to the Big Coal conversation by calling the Governor’s office at 503.378.4582.


To join community groups opposing Big Coal, attend the Sierra Club Oregon Beyond Coal Task Force meeting Tuesday, March 25, at 6 pm at the Sierra Club, 1821 SE Ankeny St.