The Enterprise readers share their thoughts on coal train traffic
Debates about our personal experiences of coal trains rumbling through the Gorge cry out for the infusion of what coal exports really mean for our life together. All the debates in the world can’t cover up the fact that our planet is in a climate emergency. Extreme weather is of course, not new. But the frequency of extreme weather, and that it is becoming the norm, is something we cannot ignore. The climate emergency is occasioned by rising carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. There is no serious debate about this any longer. We have to burn less than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide if we are to stay below 2°C of warming. Anything more than 565 gigatons is certain catastrophe for life as we know it. Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves. That’s five times the safe amount. The corporate business plan is to extract & burn all of it.
COAL is a carbon fuel and burning it is an assault on creation. Exporting coal on trains so that it can be burned anywhere else is just plain wrong. Sure we need jobs that energy companies can provide – but we need to insist that these take the form of massive jobs programs to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. When you see a coal train rattle through the Gorge, whether you see coal dust or not, whether you debate the evidence that exposure to coal increases the health risk of asthma, ask yourself this: will you stand by as the coal in these railroad cars is used to change to chemical composition of the atmosphere? Time to think bigger – about the planet. Time to think longer – about our kids.
Rev. John Boonstra
Former Pastor of Bethel United Church of Christ in White Salmon
and currently spiritual advisor and climate change activist
Wind, Jobs, and Coal Trains
If there is one thing that pains me more than any other, it's people that justify the destruction of the Earth because it creates jobs. It's a form of insanity that is well on its way to creating a planet that simply will no longer support human life. Mika Clark's recent letter (8/15/13 issue) is a case in point. In it she seeks to justify a ten-fold increase of mile-long coal trains through the Gorge because it supports "1000's of jobs in the region." No matter that those jobs won't be in the Gorge or that those coal trains will be carrying the most potent and dirty global warming fuel there is, dug from public lands for private profit, shipped to Asia to be burned, with carbon impact on the skies we all share. We are finally (albeit, too slowly) getting smarter in this country and starting to shut down coal burning power plants, where yes, jobs will be lost.
As if this letter wasn't bad enough, there was another by Brandy Miller, also of Bingen, disparaging and calling into question an alarming first hand account of coal train filth in Underwood on a super-windy day. When the wind is blowing 40 mph per hour as it sometimes does in the Gorge, big-time st can happen, and it did that day. I have heard of similar events from two other people very recently on mega-windy days, no doubt when Ms. Miller is indoors. There is plenty of coal bits lining the tracks throughout the Gorge and this is with only two to three trains going through a day. Imagine 20 or 30! One would think, with a child with asthma, there might be a little more inclination to learn about the potential health impacts from a mega-increase in polluting coal train traffic.
Plain and simple . . . coal is an antique fuel, better left beneath the public land that belongs to you and I, the American people. We'll need to learn this soon, along with a few other lessons about fossil fuels, or I'm afraid our future will be extremely bleak. I respectfully suggest that these two Bingen ladies do a little research on how fast the planet is heating up and what kind of future their children will inherit if we don't start doing things different very, very quickly.
I park along Hiway 14 and the RR tracks so I can kitesurf at the new sandbar on the White Salmon River. This is just east of the Underwood cut off. Everday that I am preparing my gear a coal train comes whistling by at a high speed. That is my cue to run to my van and shut all of the windows and sit in the van until the 125 uncovered coal cars pass. During that 125 car experience my van is constantly pelted by coal nuggets the size of BB's. These BB's are also falling into the WS River, the Klickitat River, and any other river the train passes over. My white van then usually has a fine black dust on it. This is affecting the water quality, the fish quality, the air quality, and the recreation quality for all who live in the Gorge. The infamous winter inversion of clouds will trap this foul air for much longer and affect the air quality here more than any other area of the trains journey from Wyoming. I'm pro jobs, but I think our health is more important. Power from coal in the U.S. is going the way of the 8 track player and that is why these companies have to spend millions to send it to China. We all know what China's air looks like!!!
If there is a higher ground in the coal train debate, that being jobs versus clean air, it seems unlikely that jobs would come even close. I understand the importance of jobs in everyone's life, but this is a net subtraction for the Gorge and most of the route of coal, and is certainly not worth the cost. Indeed the degradation black coal trafficking will cause the Gorge will conceivably be a net loss of jobs in our community, as well as property values and lifestyle. The only slight increase that I can envision might actually come from health care to the elderly and asthmatically challenged.
For a mother to say that her asthmatic child is not affected by the particles that she breathes, especially coal, is like saying that we aren't what we eat, or that, cigarettes don't kill. One needs only to have visited the "Body Worlds" exhibit to see real case studies of what smoke, smog, coal and bad diet does to the lungs, heart, and body. The evidence is graphic and shocking, from pink healthy lungs, to graduating shades of grey, all the way to the hue of blackness that names the disease coal minors dread and die from.
The evidence that tons of coal are blowing off these open coal piled transports is along the tracks and as clear as a dirty fingerprint. In some places already inches deep. Even the railroad's own studies admit to this loss of product and the danger it presents to track beds, as the build up can cause slippage of the rock ballast that supports these tracks and the trains that follow.
For those who think this is a NIMBY issue, they are dead right. It is NIMBY on a world scale. From where the coal comes out of the ground in Wyoming, along it's rail route, to ports where it is stockpiled, loaded, shipped across the Pacific, and then burned in China, it affects the air and water of everyone in its path. Adding to this injury, the prevailing winds blow it back it back in our faces, tripling the damage as smog, acid rain, and global warming, which endangers the quality of not just our lives, but generations to come.
Ironically, NIMBY has become a catch phrase used successfully by industry to detract from the fact that no one wants their air and water polluted. If you check in with the people who live along the 1500 plus mile rail line transporting coal through Wyoming Montana Idaho Washington and Oregon, you will see that it is, indeed something that few want in their backyard.
Coal Train Traffic Can Only Be Bad for the Gorge It is absurd to defend coal train traffic when there are no possible benefits to Gorge residents and many real downsides. The potential jobs created would be minimal—a coal terminal is totally automated, employing just one joystick jockey per shift. There would be no more railroad jobs than for any other type of cargo. The only job creation would be in health care and in cleaning up the 1% of the coal (millions of tons) that is lost between the Powder River Basin and the export terminal (according to BNSF). On a community scale, coal transportation through the region would cause environmental, health, safety, and productivity degradations that would negatively affect recreation and tourism business, decrease demand for living near a coal chute, drive away new businesses, delay emergency services and commercial traffic, and decrease property values. It is ironic that the world-class winds that attract millions of tourist dollars to the Gorge every summer are the same winds that blow coal off the uncovered train cars into the pristine Gorge environment. The business model for coal is absurd, regardless of location. It is well documented that a dollar of coal creates between four and ten dollars of healthcare, land use, and environmental damages. You and I and our children pay and will pay those costs, not coal companies. This is why the EPA has finally cracked down on coal plants and the coal industry is struggling to find more gullible countries to buy it. Only the multinational coal companies are hyping coal and spreading disinformation about the safety of fossil fuels. In response to previous letters to the editor, I respectfully disagree that there are more important issues than coal train traffic. On a global scale, nothing will be more important than maintaining a climate that enables our children and grandchildren to grow enough food and have enough water to survive. Most countries, the World Bank, 97% of climate scientists, the Department of Defense, and the State Department all agree that we are on an emissions trend that will turn farmlands into deserts, raise sea levels, accelerate species extinctions, and create many millions of climate refugees—within just 20 years. Only nuclear war could cause more damage to the planet than this suicidal path we’re on. What could be more important than stopping the most polluting energy source on the planet, especially when affordable clean energy options exist and generate far more jobs? Instead of supporting coal trains, Gorge communities should embrace a sustainable future in which we proactively encourage and invest in infrastructure that is much more energy-efficient, in more wind and solar generation capabilities, in carbon-neutral and carbon-negative biofuels that use our agricultural and forest wastes, in expanded transmission and energy storage facilities, in distributed generation and storage, and in world-class education and businesses that will develop and deploy next-generation clean technologies. Such progressive steps would maintain the beauty of the gorge, fuel a vibrant economy, and secure the future for our children and future generations.