At first glance, a proposal to ship millions of more tons of coal through a Whatcom County terminal might not sound like something that should concern South Sound residents all that much. After all, trains already transport coal through Pierce County for shipment out of Seattle.
But the Whatcom County proposal would mean up to 18 additional trains per day rumbling through Western Washington, transporting coal from Montana and Wyoming for shipment to Asia. Those trains would add traffic to the rails that hug Puget Sound and create additional waits for motorists at the many at-grade intersections.
So the South Sound would get the headaches associated with all those trains, but not the benefit of the jobs they would provide at the proposed coal terminal near Ferndale.
That’s the real reason for residents outside of Whatcom County to be concerned about the $600 million Gateway Pacific Project, which would be the largest of five proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon. The other state site is in Longview, which wouldn’t create a train traffic problem for the Puget Sound region.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine are worried about the effects of many more trains a day. McGinn said Seattle will commission a study on their impacts on traffic and safety.
So far, most of the opposition to the Ferndale terminal has focused on the environmental impact of coal and the fact that burning it is a dirty way to create power. That argument is essentially this: Because of coal-burning’s effect on global warming and the air pollution it creates, its use shouldn’t be encouraged by allowing it to be shipped out of terminals in this state.
That’s not an argument that really resonates. The coal will be mined and shipped to Asia whether the terminals in this state are built or not. Coal exports from the U.S. have increased from 40 million tons in 2003 to an expected record 125 million tons this year.
The growing Asian economy – most notably China – needs power, and until cleaner ways are developed to generate it, a lot of coal will be burned. China will buy it from somewhere, and American coal producers want it to be from them.
The real argument should be over the additional train traffic. If the terminals aren’t built in Whatcom County and Longview, would trains just transport the coal to British Columbia for shipment? Is there a way for coal trains to get there without going through Washington? If the trains do come through Washington, will measures be taken to reduce coal dust and traffic impacts?
A series of public meetings, including a contentious one in Seattle last week, has been held to develop an outline for issues to be studied in an impact statement. How coal-burning affects the global climate should be beyond the scope of that study. But the impacts of all those additional coal trains on communities like Tacoma and Seattle are perfectly reasonable areas of concern.