Coal trains wreck their way through the Northwest

Michael O'Leary

Coal trains wreck their way through the Northwest

Photo credit: Yakama Nation

On July 2nd another coal train derailed in eastern Washington, just 30 miles north of the Columbia River, spilling hundreds of tons of fine coal powder en route to a west coast port for sale across the Pacific.

Fortunately no one was injured. But this is our canary in our coal mine.

(The Oregonian now reports BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas attesting "no more than 900 tons of coal were spilled")[] in the 30-car derailment and that the Federal Railroad Administration has been called in to investigate "condition of the tracks, operating practices and equipment."

With three new proposed coal export terminals steamrolling their way into Oregon’s smallest ports, and three more targeting small ports in Washington state, we all can see what’s rolling down the tracks: more trainwrecks.

Where will the next derailment occur? On the Steel Bridge as coal trains skirt down to the Port of Coos Bay? On the Amtrak/Burlington Northern bridge over the Columbia on the way up to the Port of Bellingham? Or will it be in Hood River, or on the way past Longview?

It’s anyone’s guess. And it’s everyone’s fight.

The coal, after all, isn’t for us.

The energy from coal exports will be used to power overseas job and overseas profits with the added advantages of non-union labor and uncontrolled air pollution.

As if coal exports weren’t bad enough in an economic vacuum, because the prevailing winds carry the toxic coal pollution across the Pacific back here to the northwest to be deposited with the rains into our own backyards, lakes, and rivers means that increasing coal exports overseas will increase our toxic mercury problem here at home in the Northwest.

It’s a train wreck ahead alright, but there’s still time to switch what we let roll down the tracks.

Find out who’s already join the fight to keep big coal companies out of the northwest, and what you can do here.

Editor's note: We're happy to announce that Mike O'Leary has decided to join us as a regular contributor, after a series of excellent guest columns in recent months. Learn more about Mike here.

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    Not quite sure about the Steel bridge route. Wouldn't it come down the Gorge, follow the Banfield and then take a left and head through Milwaukee, OC, Salem and points south?

    I can just see the traffic back up at SE 11th and 12th at Clinton, just to name one spot.

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    Environmental disasters and exports to China don't look much like "energy security" to me.

    With deregulation, you don't have to make promises. All you need are some sketchy claims and an American flag to wrap them in. Rare is the outcome that's actually reviewed.

    Legislation will always be bought and paid for by industry, but why can't it be accountable? It needs to have clauses that trigger when the vision doesn't match reality. We should lobby Congress to audit everything like that—there's probably good money in it. ;)

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    I'm with you on that Teresa.

    The National Wildlife Federation is currently preparing a fisheries impact report about the coal export plans.

    Let's connect.

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    I share much of your concerns (spills, dust, road delays at crossings) about the shipment of coal through Oregon. But are not there also Oregon jobs, including investments in upgrading our rail transport system, that could flow from exporting more coal?

    And your view of the China dynamics do not seem sufficiently nuanced to me. First, whether we export Montana/Wyoming coal through Oregon, or Washington, ports will probably not make any difference as to the amount of coal China burns. They have other coal sources and could get Montana/Wyoming coal by other routes. The question is whether Montana/Wyoming coal is higher or lower in toxic mercury (and other pollutants) than alternative coal sources. I skimmed the linked article and did not see that asserted. Maybe I missed it.

    Second, do you really want to keep the Chinese people impoverished? I can only wonder at your reluctance to support Chinese jobs and profits, as in saying “energy from coal exports will be used to power overseas job and overseas profits” as if per se that was bad (I can’t tell if you would support such jobs and profits if Chinese labor relations and pollution controls were better, and yes, both should be better). Further, roughly half of China’s 1.3 billion, or 650 million, people live in poverty well beyond anything we have in the US. China needs energy to improve their lives. There are for China, it seems to me, no easy energy choices on how to do that.

    Third, even if we could stop Montana/Wyoming coal from going to China, that would not be enough. We should, as Berkeley Economics Professor Brad DeLong says (here): “beg the rulers of China and India to understand their long-term interest: The welfare of their countries over the next four generations depends on rapidly controlling global warming. Their own personal survival—unless they want mobs descending on their homes when they are in retirement, dragging them and their descendants out into the street, and carrying their heads on pikes—depends on rapidly controlling global warming. And because one of either China or India is going to be the globe’s dominant superpower in a century, pleasing that future superpower now is in every country’s interest. So we need to beg the rulers of China and India to recognize their personal and their countries’ long-term interest, and to use their power as future global superpowers to help us get this climate-control party started.”

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      But are not there also Oregon jobs, including investments in upgrading our rail transport system, that could flow from exporting more coal?

      There can be jobs generated through cultivation of poppies and production and distribution of heroin. Providing jobs does not justify damaging industries.

      Second, do you really want to keep the Chinese people impoverished?

      No, but neither do I want to drown the planet's seacoasts, create deadly monster storms, impoverishing droughts, or cancer-causing and birth-defect inducing pollution. If the Chinese people want to end their poverty, they need to find a way that does not empoverish the whole planet.

      So we need to beg the rulers of China and India to recognize their personal and their countries’ long-term interest

      Worthwhile project, but not an excuse to facilitate the short-term addition of gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere, which reacts not one whit to our enlightenment, but only to what we dump into it.

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        Tom, on the second point, Michael seems to me to be suggesting that helping the Chinese in and of itself, and independent of the calamities you list, is bad. I sensed he is trying to bolster his case by playing to anti-China sentiment. I think that is not a useful argument.

        Engaging China on a whole range of issues is vital to us and to the whole earth. It is why I am passionate about more Mandarin immersion and high school study abroad in China programs programs. Just playing defense, or trying to isolate ourselves from what China is doing, is not enough. Stopping Montana/Wyoming coal from going to China, while bashing China, does not make for a better world.

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          I agree. There's no reason to be anti-China. there's plenty of reason to be anti-biosphere destruction.

          Still, it seems O'Leary is more concerned with loss of jobs here than with China in particular. Perhaps you perceive a subtext that I do not.

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    I'm starting to think we need a coal fired plant in Portland or maybe the Dalles. Our great environmental groups don't seem to mind when a foreign utility wants to stick a 500 ft wind turbine in my front yard why should we give a rip about the Columbia River Gorge?

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      Wind turbines do not destroy the biosphere. Burning coal does. If you think we should not use wind power, perhaps you should start reducing electricity use by turning off your internet linked device.

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    Check it out. Another coal train derailment yesterday - this one with one person killed. The more coal trains, the greater the immediate and long-term risks to human health.,0,4983947.story

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    As long as there is a market for coal in China it will be bought from someone. If not from American mines then from Australian mines that produce dirtier coal than ours. The idea that shipping the coal in American trains, from American ports, mined by American workers is somehow adding to the climate problem is totally bogus. As for toxicity risk. There are much more dangerous chemicals and enviro hazards being shipped on trains than coal. So that argument doesn't hold at all. When the Chinese stop buying coal, then the coal will no longer be shipped. In the meantime let it be American coal, cleaner than from Australian and with money going to American workers.

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      So in other words, tell American workers and companies, we'd rather have Australia get the business and sell the coal, because we are too righteous, even though our righteousness won't do one thing to help climate change, but it will fire a whole lot of workers and hurt the U.S. and Oregon economy, disinvest in transportation infrastructure, and hurt rail income, which in itself does much to keep trucks off our roads.

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        Bill, I think the argument you're looking for is "think global, act local."

        No, we can't really do much to stop China from turning to Australia as a coal source. But we can try and stop them from using us that way.

        And then, I think we have to trust our friends in Australia to fight on their own behalf.

        Think global, act local. That old bumper sticker actually means something.

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          p.s. As others have noted, climate change isn't the only issue here.

          There seem to be very real and very localized effects for this community that can be avoided by stopping the coal export project in this community.

          I care about coal dust in the Columbia Gorge. I care a lot less about coal dust in the Australian Outback.

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            The coal dust argument is unproven and nonfactual, lacking evidence to date. At this point it just looks to me that because of global warming, anti-fossil fuel concerns some people are trying to find health effects issues that are unproven.

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          That argument doesn't hold here, Kari. Austalians aren't going to refuse to ship coal, and neither is any other coal producing nation. Oregon can't stop China from burning coal as long as they think it is in their self interest to do so. This kind of action simply convinces the American public that progressive puritanism trumps economic security for American workers and drives people to vote GOP.

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            Oregon can't stop China from burning coal as long as they think it is in their self interest to do so.

            Yeah, that's what I said. But we can work to ensure that it's not coming through our neighborhoods.

            Look, if there was a magical teleporter device that could get coal from a Montana coal mine to a Chinese processing plant, I'd be much less concerned.

            But if it's coming through Oregon, that bugs me.

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        No, actually, the US should begin to put its huge military might to good use, rather than bombing third world civilians for fun and profit. We should declare an end to coal exportation to protect the world from climate change and blockade any port that attempts to export coal nywhere in the world.

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      Jefferson, Yes, I'm for letting the Governor's efforts to evaluate the health effects play out. If coal dust from the coal trains is a serious community health risk and cannot be mitigated, then all the coal export projects are a no go and we don't need to bring selling coal to China, or anyone else, into it. You may already be convinced of that. I’m open to mitigation efforts.

      And yes, I too worry about market conditions changing as we (the coal exporting companies) gear up. I’d note that China, by one estimate, has the world’s largest natural gas reserves (here), although difficult to recover even with fracking technology. So they may themselves shift off coal as their natural gas gears up.

      I’d not advise putting any public monies into rail infrastructure upgrades, but if the coal companies or railroads want to put private money into upgrading our rail infrastructure, that would be good (especially in the context of mitigated coal dust issues).

      I do get frustrate with those who worry about China when it suits their other political agendas, but not when it comes time to support more Mandarin immersion or study abroad in China programs. I know that’s not you, but it may be Michael and others in the environmental movement, who, it seems to me, do not have a well thought out approach to engaging China on the issues they bring up.

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    Hi -

    City Club of Eugene is hosting the Sierra Club and Beyond Toxics to discuss this matter at the Eugene Hilton at noon on Friday, July 6. The Port of Coos Bay initially agreed to come as well, but then declined when the Sierra Club sued them for trying to charge over $20,000 for public records. UP and KinderMorgan also declined to appear. Taken as a whole, it's hard not to conclude that the pro camp doesn't want this discussed in a public forum because they want it decided in Washington DC as a federal issue. The more it is discussed (and the City Club of Eugene is committed to public discourse), the more it is likely that objections from the states and communities along the way will impact that federal process.

    Another interesting tidbit - BNSF and UP, the two rail carriers shipping Powder Basin coal, initially attempted to require shippers to load and spray the coal to such a degree as to reduce coal dust by 85%. (Coal dust in excess can cause derailments.) The shippers challenged these restrictions and it appears that no such requirements are now in effect.


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    With my apologies to all readers for any inexactitude I furthered with my initial estimate of how much coal was spilled from the 30 cars that derailed, I have edited the post to be both more conservative and less sure-sounding.

    If anyone finds a good source for counting the pounds of coal spilled, please do share and I'll correct to reflect the best data.

    The point, after all is not the impact of this train, but the thousands of trains coming down the tracks.

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    We aren't in the same economic position as Seattle, Jefferson. They have major corporations, a major R1 university, and an unemployment rate of 6.6% (ours is 8%). Their resolution doesn't provide much room for compromise--if you support that resolution, you're basically against shipping. I'd hope that Portland would at least talk to some other communities who'd be more heavily impacted before we take that step.

    This won't just affect our local shipping economy, it will affect Montana, North Dakota, and many states in the region.

    I'm no fan of coal burning plants, but also recognize that the Chinese will find an alternative and our principled stand will gain us nothing on the greenhouse warming front and lose whatever leverage we may have on the Chinese to use cleaner coal or to clean up their smokestacks.

    I thought there were ways to cover these cars to minimize or eliminate any dust (opposed by the companies, but so what, if they want to ship, they need to cover).

    On derailments, ANY increased reliance on rail transportation translates into more derailments, that's just a given. You can't compare X number of derailments vs. zero, but to some reasonable baseline. Not sure what that is, but I'm sure zero is a misleading base.

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      One of those few times I find agreement with your arguments, Paul. I would add on the political front this is a losing argument for Democrats and merely drives voters to the right wing when they become convinced we are willing to lose jobs for the sake of a puritanism that is irrational and accomplishes nothing.

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    I'm not sure I buy the premise that the Chinese will just do whatever they want (though I understand the argument of constructive engagement).

    There's significant evidence the Chinese are looking to shift from coal to gas. That's not a long-term solution, but usually an improvement.

    I think we need to use all the tools we can use to encourage that shift - including increasing the cost of coal - and a further shift to renewables.

    Clearly, the market is interested in coal right now - but if we increase the cost of coal by making it harder to ship, we increase the incentives to find better solutions.

    Moreover, Australia knows better than most countries the burdens of the climate crisis. They've just implemented a carbon tax as of July 1st.

    So, yes -- we can't solve the climate crisis alone. But we should do our part to push the world away from coal.

    And we have a lot of leverage over China (just as they have a lot of leverage over us) - far beyond just this.

    Finally, North Dakota has an unemployment rate of 3%. Yes, that's not a typo.

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    The global environmental problem is aggravated by China, and next India, building billion-watt coal burning power plants. As I understand it, Powder River coal represents a small portion of their needs, and our exports policy won't affect their strategy, so these exports have little impact on global warming. But if someone else sells them coal cheaper, or their needs go down, we will quickly be cut off, so let's not put our retirement savings into this boondoggle like it's a safe investment.

    Second, the reason they,re buying this coal is that it represents cheap energy, which is a huge competitive advantage. Why on earth would we ship an American competitive resource to another nation so they can undercut us more? Like shipping raw logs so they can sell us cheap plywood. Plus, all the profits go to the coal barons and we get nothing as a nation for ripping up our land and giving away the unreplaceable energy buried there. This is not an anti-China question; it's a pro-American question.

    Finally, does the city or state have any say in what the railroads do to them? I have a feeling Congress will say real people can't stand in the way of corporate people. But I think it is time for communities to assert the right not to have their air, water, and land, and right to live in peace and quiet taken from them without compensation.

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    This afternoon the Oregonian's Nick Budnick reports that the Federal Railroad Administration has been called in to investigate the accident and that BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas attests that less than 900 tons of coal was spilled in the 30 car-derailment.

    The post above has been corrected to reflect these new details.

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    Coal burners are some of the worst polluters of our air no matter where they are on the planet, so why do we want to export anything that is killing us to another country, Sorry money is not an answer it is a thing.

    Jim Klahr

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    I'm happy to see Steve Novick is not buying into any of this righteousness stuff about coal. He opposes Jefferson Smith's position:

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    It's easy to be against coal. I sure am. Coal is a nonrenewable resource that is doing severe damage to our atmosphere - with its emissions and acid rain, not to mention the carbon use in transporting it.

    Obviously, we shouldn't enable transport through our community - not through North Portland, not anywhere. And certainly not to enable China to continue its proliferation of coal plants to power its growth, when their emissions return right back to us in the form of acid rain.

    But I think we have to go further than a 'city resolution' or 'agreeing we need a state health study.'

    The federal government governs our railroads. They have the ultimate power to make this happen or not. We need to push hard on our federal congressional delegation to slow the process, ensure enough environmental impact is assessed, and allow the city and its residents to jump feet-first into the NEPA process. We need to make sure all the impacts, including the ones on real people and real neighborhoods, are being considered.

    This isn't a technical matter. This is about what kind of future we are choosing for our city and what Portland's role in the world will be.

    North Portland is getting run over around the future of Hayden Island as well. For some reason, there's a sudden rush to close a deal allowing the Portland development rights on a portion of the island without nearly enough of a transparent and inclusive process. Even the advisory committee assembled has lost trust in the city, the Port and the process because the draft agreement is loose, unspecific, and shows little commitment to preserving quality of life for residents and essential habitat for wildlife. If we are to be a region with 'nature in the city,' how can we so blatantly run over nature? If we are so dedicated to job creation in our region, why not take the time to make sure we are citing facilities in the most economically advantageous location? If any other neighborhood in Portland were told a $100 million bridge was going to be built in their backyard to accommodate over 500 trucks a day, would the City Council be rushing to decision so quickly?

    I hope my opponent for Mayor will join me in pressing our City Council to slow down and comprehensively study the situation so that a solution can be developed that all parties can live with - even the wildlife for whom we are also supposed to defend.

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    Important data from a BNSF railroad document:

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