This summer, perhaps no local issue has been more hot button than that of coal. The various plans to boost coal exports through the Oregon Coast to China have largely been met with skepticism here in Portland. Several folks here at Blue Oregon have already weighed in and presented a couple of different points of view. For me personally, it’s taken me a little while to come to a conclusion on the matter. The issues surrounding coal are complex, and I don’t think we’ve explored them all yet.
There are some real concerns about the health and environmental effects related to coal trains. But there are also a lot of benefits. As John Whitty, from Coos Bay so eloquently argued in The Oregonian recently, rural communities have never really recovered from the recession that began in 1980 and are in desperate need of jobs. Exporting coal is one of the very few ways to create instant family-wage jobs in a region that needs them now more than ever. It’s tough to quibble with jobs argument when the unemployment rate on the Oregon Coast and other rural towns is far higher than those of the Portland Metro Area.
But a coal train running through Oregon obviously causes concern. I appreciate folks raising the potential health and environmental concerns that could arise from coal trains running through North and Northeast Portland every day. Those are clearly valid concerns, but they aren’t the only issues that need to be explored. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the equity piece of coal train debate yet. If in fact the coal trains do start rumbling through Oregon soon, at least in the Greater-Portland area, it will be through largely low-income neighborhoods in North and North East Portland. And I think this is symptomatic of something larger in our fair progressive city, namely, we have a serious NIMBY problem.
First, let me define what I mean when I use the word “equity”. Equity can be boiled down to fairness, the equal sharing of benefits and burdens. If coals exports start coming through Oregon, we will all benefit from the increased tax revenue that comes from the coal moving through our railways and ports. The extra tax revenue will go into the state’s General Fund and will be used on things like education that we all benefit from.
But we won’t all bear the burdens that come from coal. In the Greater Portland area at least, the trains will run almost exclusively through low-income communities of color in North and Northeast Portland. Folks living close to the railroad tracks will disproportionately bear the burdens of coal such as noise, potential pollution, and greater traffic snarls, while everyone else only bears the benefits.
The inequity of the proposed coal trains is not an isolated problem. Every time we need to build a new freeway, garbage and recycling transfer station or wastewater treatment plant we’re doing so in poor communities who must bear the health, environmental and social costs alone, so everyone else can enjoy the benefits of reduced traffic congestion, quality garbage service and treated water. For an example, look no further than the decade long battle to find a suitable location for the new Sellwood Bridge. Everyone wanted a new bridge but no one wanted it to be located in their community.
As a city we brag about being progressive, inclusive and equitable. Our city values include, “shared power and governance”, relationships with all aspects of the community, and “social sustainability” where “[w]e use an equity lens to make decisions collaboratively with community partners”. Sharing both the burdens and benefits of a project or decisions leads to better, more informed and healthier decision-making. For instance, if more people have to bear the burden of having a wastewater treatment plant located in their communities, then more people are going to make sure it’s as safe and healthy for the community as it can be. Or maybe the community will try and find ways to reduce wastewater and therefore reduce the workload for the wastewater treatment plant.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on equity or have all the answers, but I do believe the coal train debate illustrates a larger question we as a community need to ask, namely, if we are serious about equity, are all of our communities really sharing in both the benefits and the burdens? Or are we sharing the benefits with everyone and sloughing the burdens off onto a few? If not, then we need to take a really hard look at our decision making and find a way to make more equitable decisions at the governmental level.
Coal trains have their benefits; they’ll create a lot of desperately needed jobs in rural Oregon. I could support coal trains running through Oregon, just so long as they run through Lake Oswego too.