Chief Concerns

101 Reasons to be Concerned About Coal Export
by James Wells, Climate Hawks

The following resource information is taken directly from the Coal Train Facts website, which provides clear, verifiable and easy-to-access information surrounding the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project at Cherry Point.  Coal Train Facts, an independent and self-financed registered nonprofit in Washington state, continually updates their library with the latest information and research available concerning plans to develop coal export facilities on the continent at Cherry Point, in northwest Washington.

Chief Concerns:

  • Trains
    There are concerns both about the dramatically increased intensity of rail usage, and also about the length, size, weight, and polluting capacity of coal trains specifically.There are various numbers given for the number of trains per day required to transport 48 million tons of coal per year from the Powder River Basin to the proposed coal port at Cherry Point.  According to Carrix/SSA,  the total number of coal train trips per day (arriving full, leaving empty) would be in the range of 16 to 18.  There is no cap on the number of trains possible, should the proposed port expand capacity in the future.According to the Whatcom Transportation Plan of 2007, there are currently about 35 trains that run each day between Seattle and Everett, and 14 trains each day between Everett and Brownsville, BC. This means that between Everett and the Cherry Point coal port, there would be upwards of 30 trains total a day. If the trains were to be evenly spaced, there would be a train passing through a given town or crossing every 48 minutes. Each of the 18 or so coal trains would be approximately a mile and a half in length, made up of  125-150 cars, depending on car size and type. Coal cars are typically uncovered; each car loses between 500 pounds and one ton of coal dusten route.Each coal train is so heavy it requires four locomotives, and therefore has four times the environmental impact of a single-locomotive train.In addition to wear and tear impact on rail lines, the heaviness of the trains also produces more noise. There are lingering questions about the impact of the trains’ weight, including their long-term impact on the rail system and potential damage to nearby structural foundations due to the trains’ vibrations.In some places along the rail corridor, the trains are on single tracks.One such area is just south of Bellingham.  These areas, along with other tunnels and bottlenecks along the corridor, could be severely impacted by an increase in the number and size of trains. Other trains, most notably passenger rail, could be forced off the tracks for extended periods of time. In addition, idling rail engines produce a significant amount of diesel emissions, resulting in environmental damage and raising health concerns.Nothing in SSA’s proposal or anything submitted by BNSF suggests a willingness to provide grade separation at all crossings or make other mitigation expenditures necessary to reduce impacts all along the Puget Sound line. Typically, the tremendous costs of mitigation are borne by the community, as railroads are federally exempt from paying more than 10% of such costs, and not required to pay any.

    There is also evidence to suggest that the increased number of freight trains along the corridor would preclude the development of high-speed passenger rail in the area.

  • Traffic
    Gibson Traffic Consultants have conducted traffic studies in the towns of Burlington, Marysville, Mt Vernon, and Stanwood.The towns all  have common concerns regarding waiting and traffic.  16-18 additional trains are expected, and each train may be over 1.5 miles long.  At a speed of 50-60 mph, that would be an approximate 3-4 minute wait time at crossings.  At a speed of 35 mph, there would be an approximate 6-7 minute wait time at crossings.  These wait times are in addition to existing train traffic.  There is concern among the citizens of towns like Marysville–including the Mayor–that the additional train could cause over two additional hours of traffic delays per day.These studies suggest potentially severe consequences for each City’s transportation plan and improvements, with increased risk of accidents, impacts to the City’s level of service, ability to provide effective emergency response times, and possible interference with the local freight delivery systems affecting the local economy.
  • Health
    Diesel particulate matter is associated with both pulmonary and cardiovascular issues, including: impaired pulmonary development in adolescents, increased cardiopulmonary mortality and all-cause mortality, measurable pulmonary inflammation, increased severity and frequency of asthma attacks, ER visits, and hospital admissions in children, increased rates of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in adults, and increased risk of cancer.  Coal dust contains toxic heavy metals and has been associated with emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and malignancy.  Noise exposure can cause the following: cardiovascular disease, including increased blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke, and ischemic heart disease; cognitive impairment in children; sleep disturbance and resultant fatigue, hypertension, arrhythmia, and increased rate of accidents and injuries; exacerbation of mental health disorders such as depression, stress and anxiety, and psychosis.  Frequent long trains at rail crossings will mean delayed emergency medical service response times, as well as increased accidents, traumatic injury and death.  Transporting coal to China in particular has the potential to raise levels of mercury in our waters.
  • Quality of Life
    The Northwest is a region noted for spectacular physical beauty, an emphasis on “quality of life,” and a dedication to clean, healthy living and environmental stewardship. It is considered a prime tourist destination spot and a highly desirable place to live; it is both agriculturally rich and a haven for innovative business.Along the Puget Sound rail corridor, many communities have invested in the transformation of waterfront from industrial to commercial use as an essential part of a plan for sustainable economic viability. A continuously in-use train track effectively shears such a town off from its waterfront, and jeopardizes such long-term planning.The pollution, traffic, noise, and degradation of our waters that would come with significant coal train and ship traffic is at odds with our enjoyment and stewardship of this region.Choosing to become an economy in which coal transport is an emphasis seemingly undermines aspirations to build on the Northwest economies of tourism, healthy agriculture, innovative businesses, clean energy and the manufacture of local goods. The transport of another region’s goods to another country brings limited benefit to our region, at significant cost to our region.  In particular, many feel that the export of a highly polluting form of fossil fuel is contradictory to this region’s values and dedication to phase out domestic coal-burning power plants.The Puget Sound Partnership compiled an action agendawhich addresses many of these quality of life concerns.There are concerns about how the intensity of the rail usage would effectively shear communities off from their waterfronts.  The city of Bellingham, WA is an example of redevelopment efforts affected by increased rail traffic.
  • Property Values
    Property values could suffer near the coal train corridor. According to a study in Entrepreneur Magazine, small homes near freight rail lines decrease in value 5-7%.
  • Environmental Concerns
    There are a number of concerns about the potential effects of heavy diesel pollution from the trains and ships; coal dust from the trains and port storage facilities; marine disturbance created by dramatically increased ship traffic and the size of the ships; and construction of the port itself on and in proximity to vital habitats.At risk are herring populations that are critical to our salmon fisheries, marine vegetation, other marine life, shore bird populations, and the cleanliness of our air and waters.Air QualityBecause most coal trains are uncovered, they produce significant amounts of coal dust in the course of transporting the coal from one place to another. According to BNSF research, 500 pounds to a ton of of coal can escape a single loaded car. Dust is also generated at the terminal site, as bulldozers continually shift and rotate the ground-up coal. The potential adverse effects of coal dust on adjacent sites was a factor in the Port of Vancouver rejecting a proposal to export coal from a new export site there. The Mayor of Newport News, VA has commented widely on the negative impacts of coal dust on his town.Coal is not the only culprit with potential to pollute our air. Cape-class ships and diesel locomotives (especially when idling) also emit air pollutants.

    • Water Quality

    Transporting coal to China in particular has the potential to raise levels of mercury in our waters. The project will require several permits under the National Permit Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

    China consumes coal at an ever-increasing rate due to its burgeoning industrial economy. Though China has vast coal supplies of its own, dangerous mines combined with overrun rail infrastructure make it easier for China to import coalfrom other countries rather than mine its own.

Washington State has put policies in place to phase out coal burning facilities because of coal’s negative environmental impact, yet we are exporting it to China. Its unique economic position makes China especially powerful in negotiations of prices of coal worldwide.

The Powder River Basin is an area in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming known for its natural coal deposits. It is the largest coal mining region in the United States. Coal is mined by a process called strip mining, a type of surface mining where overlying soil and rock are removed to reach the coal underneath.

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal port at Cherry Point would have a capacity of approximately 48 million tons of coal annually, making it more than twice the size of Westshore Terminals at Robert’s Bank in the lower mainland of British Columbia, currently the largest coal port in North America, which ships around 21 million metric tons (or about 23 tons) of coal per year.  As Asian demand for, and the Powder River Basin’s supply of, coal are seemingly endless, there is no way to accurately predict how large the GPT, if built, might become, as the current application is to develop only 350 acres of a 1,000 acre site.

There would be an approximately 80 to 105-acre stockyard at Cherry Point for storage of coal and associated machinery. Coal dust is generated from uncovered piles that need to be rotated regularly. The dust is notoriously difficult to control.

Cape-class ships (so named because they are too large to fit through the Panama Canal and must sail around the cape) would be required to transport the coal from Cherry Point to destinations in China.

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