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The Dirty Dance: Export Plan Puts North Idaho in the Middle of a New Coal Rush

Plans to bring coal trains across the Northwest raise big questions

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Don't Coal it a Comeback

The potentially sharp increase in coal shipments through the Sandpoint-Spokane area has been a bit of sleeper issue so far. While communities closer to the proposed export terminals have hosted numerous panels and information sessions, it wasn't until October 2011 that any public outreach on the topic had been attempted in the Spokane area.

Hosted by the Spokane Riverkeeper, the information session covered potential environmental and health risks, along with a discussion of how increased rail traffic could affect the region.

"Here on the route there's a major lack of education," said Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich. "They say, 'Oh, the trains are going to Longview or Bellingham, who cares?'"

The other educational hurdle is that neither the terminals nor the subsequent coal shipments are impending. Even if the permitting and environmental impact statements go through without a hitch, it would be at least five years before the region would feel any impacts from the surge in exports.

Lundsberg, with BNSF, stressed that nothing involving expanded shipments from the Powder River Basin or freight loads to the proposed coastal terminals has been solidified.

"It's just way, way, way too early to even talk about that stuff," she said. "It's simply too soon to know what the market demands will be, and we don't have a contract for any freight that goes into the Gateway Pacific Terminal."

Still, groups like the Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Power Past Coal are mounting their first resistance as the EIS process begins in earnest.

The Sierra Club, in particular, thinks it's a big enough deal to position someone in Spokane to keep an eye on the process and help spur area residents to action.

"Cities along the coal rail route like Bellingham, Edmonds and Spokane, are waking up," said Crystal Gartner, associate field organizer for the Sierra Club in Spokane. "They're concerned they don't have a say because they're out of the scope of the study. It would be worse for Spokane because all the rails go through here, yet we have zero say in what happens."

Like other coal-shipment opponents, Gartner ticks off a list of potential dangers, from diesel emissions to coal and coal dust, to congestion and derailment. She also doubts communities along the possible route would see any economic benefit.

"Coal trains bring only harm ... no benefit. Not one single job," she said. "Basically, we'd be another sacrifice zone for the mining companies. Why should we let Big Coal ram this down our throats and threaten our quality of life?"

Protecting the region's quality of life means getting a seat at the table, and that's a priority for Mihailovich as well.

"Right now, we're in the wait-and-see period," he said. "Statewide groups in Washington have put pressure on the Governor's Office to include this area in the EIS, as well as Bellingham and Longview. It should cover the whole region along the route."

Consideration of the plan should also mean looking at the larger impacts, Mihailovich added, including its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to figures cited in Science Daily and quoted in the WORC analysis, the export of 20 million to 30 million tons of Powder River Basin would result in the export of between 35 million and 53 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. A full 110 million ton export market would add 220 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere annually.

"That's the larger education, and it's a little harder to quantify--it's even harder to do," Mihailovich said. "We're trying to tie this into a larger context."

With the filing of an application for the Cherry Point Terminal near Bellingham expected in March, and the EIS process gearing up shortly thereafter, Williamson, with the Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, is also tracking the issue and working with fellow opponents to ensure potential impacts in North Idaho are considered in the process as well.

"The Sierra Club and others are advocating for a longer public comment period on the EIS. They're usually 30 days but that can totally slip under a lot of people's radar. We want 90 days to comment on the EIS," Williamson said. "The effect on our community needs to be reflected, too."

Gartner, at the Sierra Club, agreed.

"Spokane, Sandpoint and other cities along the rail line will see nothing but harm and no benefits from Big Coal's massive coal export proposal," Gartner said. "We can't trust the railroads or the coal companies to protect our communities. They'll talk a big game, but when it comes down to it, they just want to make a big buck off the health and safety of our communities.

"We are talking to community members, doctors, ministers, business owners and public officials about the risks this proposal poses to our community and opportunities this spring to let their voices be heard and make sure their community is represented in the process."

Looking out her window at the Hope Marketplace, Thurman remembers her experiences in China during the 1980s.

"I've been to the Gary, Ind., of China--Baotou in Inner Mongolia--and it was like going back to the 19th century," she said. "The only Anglos there were from Pittsburgh, and they were selling coal-burning equipment. We're hopefully the last generation that's going to use it."

Whether its coal dust in Montana, degraded tracks in Hope, congestion and diesel emissions in Washington or CO2-belching smokestacks in China, Williamson said there's nothing to like about the plan.

"It does absolutely nothing except cause damage, and I think everybody can find something to be concerned about this," she said. "The only good news I can think of is that this isn't completely imminent. There is some time to really raise some hell."

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