Coal Trains Through Lake Oswego

Nels Johnson

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.

  • (Show?)

    I can't wait for the trains to run through the SE 11th/12th and intersections between Division and Powell on there way south.

  • (Show?)

    "I'm sorry my son; You're too late in asking. Mr. Peabody's Coal Train has hauled it away..." (to China via Oregon)

    • (Show?)

      Tom, you are so far behind the cue ball on the subject of changing climate your thoughts are nothing more than a cloud of jaded dust that you and your pundits are choking on. See:

      Chuck Wiese Meteorologist

      • (Show?)

        Chuck, even if you're correct about global warming, can you at least agree that putting a bunch of crap in the air is not a good thing?

        • (Show?)

          But he is not correct.

                    While there are obviously many challenges to projecting future sea level rise, even a seemingly small increase in sea level can have a dramatic impact on many coastal environments. Over 600 million people live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level, and two-thirds of the world’s cities that have populations over five million are located in these at-risk areas (12). With sea level projected to rise at an accelerated rate for at least several centuries, very large numbers of people in vulnerable locations are going to be forced to relocate. If relocation is delayed or populations do not evacuate during times when the areas are inundated by storm surges, very large numbers of environmental refugees are likely to result.
                    According to the IPCC, even the best-case scenarios indicate that a rising sea level would have a wide range of impacts on coastal environments and infrastructure. Effects are likely to include coastal erosion, wetland and coastal plain flooding, salinization of aquifers and soils, and a loss of habitats for fish, birds, and other wildlife and plants (11). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 26,000 square kilometers of land would be lost should sea level rise by 0.66 meters, while the IPCC notes that as much as 33% of coastal land and wetland habitats are likely to be lost in the next hundred years if the level of the ocean continues to rise at its present rate. Even more land would be lost if the increase is significantly greater, and this is quite possible (11).  As a result, very large numbers of wetland and swamp species are likely at serious risk. In addition, species that rely upon the existence of sea ice to survive are likely to be especially impacted as the retreat accelerates, posing the threat of extinction for polar bears, seals, and some breeds of penguins (13).
                    Unfortunately, many of the nations that are most vulnerable to sea level rise do not have the resources to prepare for it. Low-lying coastal regions in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and China have especially large populations living in at-risk coastal areas such as deltas, where river systems enter the ocean. Both large island nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia and small ones such as Tuvalu and Vanuatu are at severe risk because they do not have enough land at higher elevations to support displaced coastal populations. Another possibility for some island nations is the danger of losing their fresh-water supplies as sea level rise pushes saltwater into their aquifers. For these reasons, those living on several small island nations (including the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific) could be forced to evacuate over the 21st century (11).

          Consequences of Climate Change on the Oceans

  • (Show?)

    The coal industry is at war with the Democratic party, just watch CNN for 30 minutes and count the attacks by "Clean Coal." Let's not help fund them.

  • (Show?)

    We've got great ways in Oregon to create local jobs in rural communities.

    We need to extract the natural resources we have in Oregon. We are shipping jobs out of state every time we import energy from Montana, Wyoming and elsewhere.

    Invest in the resources we have in the ground, in the water, and in the air in Oregon. What are the natural resources that can create good local jobs throughout the state? Wave, Geothermal, Wind, and Solar.

    Invest in Oregon Jobs, Invest in Oregon Energy (which happen to be renewable forms of energy).

    • (Show?)

      I thought the recent deal to keep the mill open in John Day was really interesting. There will be timber cut that the mill can use to keep the jobs in place. It was a deal where all the stakeholders got together to make a decision that was best for the community.

      I wonder if it would be possible to do similar things in other areas and industries. Instead of raping the land to enrich investors, use the resources in a sustainable way to support local jobs and economy. Seems like it would work for timber and food, maybe other things.

    • (Show?)

      The other aspect of these coal trains will be the increased noise pollution due to more train horns. This may sound trivial to many people, but we in North Portland already have bothersome train noise at 2AM, 3AM, 4Am,etc. on summer nights these are sleep disturbing as it is. With many more freight trains expected to run, the situation is bound to get worse. We are trying to set up a quiet zone here in the Kenton neighborhood but it is a long process involving several agencies and doesn't apply to other areas, like St John, that are within earshot.

  • (Show?)

    Almost 50 years ago, when I was in college, they taught us that the primary difference between first world countries and third world countries was that the former exported finished products while the latter exported their raw materials.

    Since 1980 we have accelerated the process of exhausting our resources in the pursuit of benefits to ourselves at the expense of "our" children and grandchildren. This is an enormous headlong leap in that direction... a leap we are taking without looking.

    (I put "our" in quotes because I have neither but I have to listen to other people refer to theirs as if I do.)

  • (Show?)

    We have the same situation here in Salem. The coal trains would pass through the lower income, older neighborhoods of our city, not through more affluent neighborhoods of West Salem and South Salem. Another reason to work hard to make sure it doesn't happen.

  • (Show?)

    This piece seems to be a stream of consciousness with no actual point. I wish there was some argument I could actually understand. Instead it seems to be a lot of hedging to try to find some sort of middle ground that others have overlooked.

    "Coal trains have their benefits; they’ll create a lot of desperately needed jobs in rural Oregon."

    Define "a lot". And please contrast that with the amount of existing jobs that will be affected by coal trains making the Gorge a less attractive place. Oh and ruining property values of course. If we're going to talk economics, we might want to talk total cost. And externalities. And tax subsidies for the coal.

    If you didn't get a chance to watch the PDX City Council testimony, do it. Pay specific attention to Bethany Cotton's testimony:

    "I don’t pretend to be an expert on equity or have all the answers". Good choice.

    Equity is a secondary issue to the primary concern that IT'S 2012 AND WE ARE SERIOUSLY THINKING ABOUT EXPORTING COAL TO CHINA THROUGH ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING PLACES ON THE PLANET. Plus, the most equitable way of dealing with the harms is to not allow the project.

    This issue is really simple. If we're not suicidal, we stop coal. Canada stops the tar sands. Washington stops natural gas. We invest in green tech or bust. It's crunch time.

connect with blueoregon