Coal: More Trains, New Ports?

Earth Day Every Day # 11 Questions about coal trains in our state

John Locatelli's blog on China reminded me that coal is in the news--specifically, coal on its way to China from Washington shores.  Or not.  Whether this should happen has been the subject of hearings in our state and a decision is due soon.  An even bigger issue might be the global effect of millions of tons of coal being burned in China, which could/should be a separate discussion.  Dexter's recent blog reminded me that some people don't believe global warming is real, or that we have a role in contributing to it.  So let's set that issue aside for now, and just consider coal in our state.

Coal is a big part of our local history, with old mines not far from Enumclaw, and neighboring coal communities having contributed to our town's development.   In a very different way, coal is part of my own history.  The coal man came every week through the housing project where I lived as a little girl and dumped coal into the bins in front of our units.  Some bins had lids, others were open and had just three sides.  The latter, to the minds of preschoolers, were like little 3-sided houses, and my friends and I played in them.  Our moms were probably exasperated when we came in with blackened hands, faces, shoes, clothes, but I don't think anybody worried about the coal dust at that time.  Coal in a bucket sat by the stove in the living room the winter of 1949-50, and I'm certainly glad we had it to keep us warm.  (Does anybody remember the several feet of snow in Seattle that January?!)   At my grandma's house in Utah, the bucket, or just big chunks of coal, sat by the kitchen stove, and coal kept the stovetop hot for morning mush and coffee and the oven hot for bread and raisin cake later in the day.  That's how it was.  We burned coal for our daily needs because that was what we had.

That-was-then-this-is-now.  Over the years, our family has used other energy sources for heat and cooking:  wood, oil, hydro-electric, natural gas, and recently, solar.   Coal still figures in our daily use, since 30 percent of PSE's electricity comes from coal.   But natural gas is replacing coal in many areas as fracking makes the gas cheaper to access.  The good news is, natural gas is definitely cleaner (the bad news is, well, fracking....another story).  And as we use less and less coal in our own country, coal companies are looking to China.

In December advocates and protesters spoke up at hearings held to determine whether or not to have coal ports on our shores for the trainloads coming from Montana and Wyoming.  Public comment is still being taken through January 21, so you might want to look at some of the questions that have come up, get the facts, and then voice your opinion.  Questions such as....

What will be the cost to Washington taxpayers?

How many jobs would be added in our state?

Would any jobs be lost or any businesses be adversely affected?

What has been the experience of other towns/states?

How many trains are we talking about?

Where would street traffic be affected?

How would current rail traffic be affected?

In what ways would property values be affected?

Would there be significant impact on human health from coal dust?

Will fish and seafood in our waterways and the sound be safe?

My own view is that these questions should be seriously considered and satisfactorily answered before we invest a lot of tax-payer money and commit our citizens to a situation that would be difficult to undo once unforeseen (or foreseen) problems surfaced.  As you look into it, whatever your conclusions, you can give input online at


or mail a statement to

GPT/BNSF Custer Spur EIS Co-Lead Agencies

c/o CH2M Hill

1100 112th Ave NE,  Suite 400

Bellevue, WA 98004

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dexterjibs January 17, 2013 at 06:32 AM
Great post, Doreen. I could go on and on as to why I am skeptical but I will keep my comment limited on the main topic of your post. Those are some great questions that are posed. But, if the coal doesn't come thru our State, it will go thru another State and still end up in China. Another State that will benefit with more jobs and tax dollars. Usually the Chicken little fears that are used to stop this type of stuff is just that, Chicken Little fears. I don't have a problem with it. It may be all a moot point if Obama gets his way and regulates coal out of existence and all our energy costs skyrocket.
John Anderson January 17, 2013 at 04:21 PM
Another state getting the jobs and tax $ is a concern, Dexter, but here is some history on the issue: Taxpayers could spend all this money to build ports and then have China turn to Indonesia or Australia. The major cost of coal is transportation and there is no way to compete with China's neighbors. And China has huge coal resources of its own that it can leverage to keep prices at rock bottom. China is also making a gradual shift to other energy sources. We could spend millions in taxpayer money on a coal port only to see it sit idle. That's what Portland did. "The Port and investors spent $25 million building a coal export terminal. The project imploded just two years later after Asian markets proved unstable, unreliable, and not-so-hungry. After a five-month investigation in 1984, the Oregonian reported, 'Port and Pacific Coal officials heedlessly plunged ahead despite clear warnings that they might never move a solitary lump of coal.' And they never did." Gambling on Coal and Losing--the history of West Coast coal terminals. Sightline Daily, 9/12/12 Los Angeles followed Portland's example. The facility closed just six years after it opened owing to unfavorable market conditions. When the facility shut down, the City of Los Angeles had to write off $19 million of capital expense and forfeit $94 million in expected revenue. Then the city was sued for failing to consider alternative uses of the site and taxpayers shelled out $28 million to settle the suit.
Nancy M. Dumas January 17, 2013 at 05:54 PM
Doreen, I've read that by law, the railroads can pay for no more than 5% of the total cost of rail and other infrastructure upgrades to accomodate the increase in rail traffic. Translation : the cost rests on each and every taxpayer to bear the burden and the subsequent liability. The train traffic is estimated to affect 29,000 rail acres and 4000 miles of rail between us and the PowderRiver Basin in SE Montana & NE Wyoming (where, by the way, they are taking land from ranchers who's families have ranched it since the 1860's- because the ranchers have the surface rights but these mining companies, who are strip mining, have gained the mineral rights). But it's not just Peabody Energy/Powder River Coal Co. It's also Aplha Natural Resources, Kiewit Corp, Arch Coal, Cloud Peaks Energy, Black Hills Corp and Western Fuels Assoc.. Almost all of the coal is on Federal land with 3,497,852 acres currently leased vs. 78,503 leased acres between Jan. 2003-May 2004. Incredible, I know.
Doreen Anderson January 21, 2013 at 03:08 AM
Thanks, Dexter. We'd all like to see more jobs and an uptick in Washington's economy. I think, though, as per John's comment on Portland and LA, the promise of "more jobs and tax dollars" can't be relied on. What a loss those communities have suffered. But even if we did gain some jobs operating a port, we'd have to consider jobs that are lost, too. For example, a vineyard in Rainier has concerns about coal dust ruining its grapes, ending that business and putting its employees out of jobs. A fisherman/business owner in Ballard is concerned about the 15,000 fishery jobs in Puget Sound that may be threatened. (According to his testimony, "Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract.") Many other job-loss issues have been voiced. So it's not just "somebody trying to stop something" without serious concerns about their own economy and that of Washington. Or serious concerns about health, traffic, property values, infrastructure costs.... You know, I don't really see myself as a Chicken Little. Or a Turkey-Lurkey, just getting in line. I think I am more investigative. Maybe CL didn't have research skills, but if only he had asked a few questions....If only Portland and LA had....I hope a lot more questions will be asked (and answered) in Washington. I feel a little worried, listening to Coal Country Music, including "Paradise" by John Prine: "Mr. Peabody's coal train just hauled it away...."
Doreen Anderson January 21, 2013 at 04:00 AM
Hi Nancy--Thanks--and I did the math: railroads pay 5%, taxpayers pay 95%. No wonder Portland and LA had problems. Regarding ranchers--I have seen reports of Montana ranchers having their land condemned by eminent domain, some hurt by new rail lines cutting through their property, others by the degradation of their land and water supplies because of the mining. Apparently the future of cattle ranching and agriculture in these areas is at risk.


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