A public hearing on coal exports Thursday in Tacoma won’t focus on the issues that should really concern South Sound residents: more coal trains that interfere with traffic, add to air pollution and potentially affect property values.
This hearing is about what parameters to set for an environmental review of the proposed export dock in Longview, so the Tacoma location seems an odd one. Loaded coal trains serving that terminal on the Columbia River wouldn’t be coming through Tacoma and other nearby communities like they would if another proposed export terminal — at Cherry Point in Whatcom County — is built. It would ship coal to Asia brought in by rail from Wyoming, Montana and Utah.
Because the rail impact from the Longview terminal would be so negligible here, project opponents attending the Tacoma hearing almost certainly will focus on the other issues pertaining to coal: its contribution to global warming and acidification of the oceans.
Those are significant concerns, but it’s unclear whether deciding against shipping coal through Washington ports would have much, if any, impact on those problems. The coal could get exported out of British Columbia — with the coal trains still coming through Washington. The region would then get the negative rail effects of coal exports with little if any jobs benefit.
We think the focus should be on the impact created by many more slow, mile-long coal trains lumbering through the region. An estimated 16 additional coal trains would be added to the two existing trains if the Cherry Point terminal is built.
Consider the increased disruption to traffic along the waterfront and at city intersections throughout the Puget Sound region. Add the impact of lost productivity as private and commercial vehicles idle at rail crossings and emergency vehicles lose valuable minutes waiting for trains to pass by, often at a low rate of speed.
Pierce County already faces federal sanctions due to its high levels of fine particulate matter in the air. Adding 16 diesel-powered coal trains per day and longer vehicle idling times would do nothing to help get the area out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s penalty box.
Thursday’s public hearing on the Longview proposal will provide an opportunity for environmentalists to argue against coal exports. But it likely won’t be much of a venue for local concerns about coal trains rumbling through our South Sound communities.
A better time for that will be during the public comment period after the state Department of Ecology issues its draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Cherry Point project, expected next year.