A plan to run up to nine coal trains daily through Edmonds — on their way to Bellingham for shipment to China — drew about 120 people to a meeting room at Edmonds Community College Wednesday night for a spirited discussion on the health, environmental and economic impacts of such a project — and possible ways to stop it.
Co-sponsored by the all-volunteer citizen group Sustainable Edmonds and the Sierra Club, the meeting attracted mostly Edmonds residents, according to a show of hands prior to speaker introductions. It also drew members of the Edmonds Economic Development Commission, several hopeful and current Edmonds City Councilmembers (Council President Strom Peterson was one of the forum panelists) and Mayor Mike Cooper.
“To me, this is a public safety issue,” said Peterson, citing both the increased train traffic (nine additional trains could mean up to two extra hours of traffic) and the coal dust coming off the uncovered cargo.
“Our Senior Center is on the other side of our train track,” Peterson noted. “What happens if there’s an emergency and our first responders have to get to the Senior Center… or the dive park? If we continue to clog up these main intersections without really thinking about some of those effects, I don’t think we’re really doing our job.”
In addition, Peterson said, coal trains would have a negative effect on property values, something that the City of Edmonds — which relies on property tax revenue to fund city services — is already struggling with during the economic downturn. He also cited the direct environmental impact of coal dust blowing into the sensitive Edmonds Marsh area and Puget Sound, plus the health impacts on those who breathe in the dust. And as the owner of downtown Edmonds cheese shop, Peterson said he’s certain that coal trains and dust won’t be good for tourism, which means they also won’t be good for small business owners. “All of these things add up,” he said.
The issue is ripe for a grassroots campaign, something that politically active Edmonds citizens are very good at, Peterson said. “Edmonds people vote and they lead the state in getting to the polls.”
Dr. Kabran Chapek, an Edmonds naturopathic physician, addressed the project’s potential health impacts in more detail, citing primary concerns from diesel particulate matter, coal dust and noise pollution, plus the delayed response times from emergency vehicles as trains cut off the Edmonds waterfront from the downtown area.
Children and the elderly in particular would be affected by the health effects of increased train traffic, he said, ranging from a greater likelihood of asthma attacks to pulmonary, cardiac and cancer risks. Inhaling coal dust can result in malignancies, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, he said. (Someone in the audience asked why the coal trains aren’t covered, and a panelist replied it’s likely the companies involved in shipping the coal avoid that step due to the increased costs involved.)
Chapek also talked about the increased noise pollution from the trains, and an audience member who takes classes at the Edmonds Senior Center noted that even with current train traffic, “we have to stop our classes” when a train passes. “We can’t hear a thing.”
A third Edmonds speaker was Todd Cloutier, a member of the City of Edmonds Planning Board and Operations Director of Sustainable Edmonds. A retired U.S. Navy submarine officer, Cloutier admitted he “is very rigid” and as a result focuses on facts and numbers when discussing why he believes that selling coal to China and running coal trains through Edmonds are both bad ideas.
China mines more coal than any other nation in the world, but its mines are located far away from the country’s existing coal plants, and the infrastructure doesn’t exist to transport it, Cloutier said. In 2009, as the price of Chinese coal went up, China began importing large amounts of it from other countries.
According to Cloutier, U.S. companies started to realize they could make a profit if they could compete with Chinese coal prices, and that’s what’s behind the proposal to build a new coal terminal in Bellingham. Millions of tons of coal would be mined in Montana and Wyoming, shipped by railroad through Oregon and Washington, then sent by boat to Asia.
Providing China with cheap coal means that the Chinese will build more coal plants, rather than looking for alternative energy sources that are better for the environment, Cloutier said. “And if they build it there, we’re going to breathe it here. It’s not like these things (pollutants) are contained by national borders,” he said.
In response to an audience member’s question, he and others on the panel acknowledged that the Bellingham project will create jobs — an estimated 1,200 construction jobs for two years and about 100 permanent positions — but the question they posed in return was, jobs at what cost? Bellingham “is going to lose their waterfront, they are going to become a coal town, is that worth 100 jobs?” Cloutier asked.
“I think we need to recognize that in these tough times, jobs are very important to us,” added Seth Ballhorn from the Sierra Club, who also spoke during the meeting. “There are more jobs in the wind industry than in coal mining today.”
Cloutier and others noted that it will take several years to approve the project, in light of required environmental reviews, but they urged those in the audience to be diligent in keeping track of its progress and expressing their opinions early in the process.
For now, those opposing the project were advised to take two steps:
– Call Washington State Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark at 360-902-1004.
– Sign a petition opposing coal exports off the West Coast.
“Don’t forget this,” Cloutier said. “It’s going to be years but we have to keep on this for years or it will just happen one day.”