Coal trains spew smoke for debate | Klaas

The coal export industry may help the regional economy, but at some cost to the environment and infrastructure.  - Courtesy photo
The coal export industry may help the regional economy, but at some cost to the environment and infrastructure.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The debate over whether the Green River Valley should open its rails to a proposed coal train express is a complex, contentious one.

The likelihood of long trains running through the heart of the valley is very real – and the public needs to get on board.

Positions are firm on both sides of the rail: those who support job growth and exports; and those who are blowing the whistle on coal trains for their anticipated cargo-carrying strain on the environment and infrastructure.

And then there are those positioned in the middle, trying to negotiate and mitigate the all-encompassing plan.

If coal trains soon come running, opponents fear coal dust, congestion and frustration.

Just driving across downtown Auburn and Kent could get tougher, as mile-long trains chug their way north. As many as 18 round-trip export trains could roll through the center of town each day.

If the trains come running, proponents say they will bring much-needed employment and revenues, enhancing industry.

"The thing about this issue is that while to some it may seem a simple issue, it's not," said Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a nonprofit trade organization that supports new, regional export projects. "These are difficult times for many people in the Northwest. These projects – and the jobs they will create – represent a ray of hope for thousands."

All rails would lead to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) – a multi-commodity, dry bulk cargo-handling facility on nearly 1,500 acres in Whatcom County. The shipping, stevedoring and warehousing facility would be the largest on the West Coast, the latest innovation of SSA Marine, a Northwest company and a global leader in maritime services.

The terminal – positioned at Cherry Point, just 17 miles south of the Canadian border – would provide a portal for American producers to export dry bulk commodities such as grain, potash and coal to Asian markets.

Trains would bring coal from Wyoming and Montana to Spokane through the Columbia River Gorge and up north through Auburn, Kent and Tukwila on the way to Bellingham.

Citizens in Bellingham already don't like the idea. A political action committee – No Coal! – is putting up a fight to derail coal trains.

Elsewhere, another state project, the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminal (MBT) in Longview, is ramping up for an environmental review process, due this spring.

The MBT proposes to build a $600 million terminal west of Longview to export 44 million tons of coal annually, an amount that would make it one of the largest such facilities in North America.

But such plans are up for review – steps that will command considerable time – a long, arduous process of fielding public input, drafting and approving environmental impact statements (EIS). There are also possible legal hurdles and other factors characteristic of bureaucratic protocol.

Local communities are weighing in

The Kent City Council recently issued an EIS scoping letter in an effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Ecology to look at its impacts on the city. Mayor Suzette Cooke signed it.

The Corps of Engineers understands that much is at stake.

"The Corps recognizes the intense public interest in both the Gateway Pacific Terminal project and the larger regional issues about terminals servicing coal as a whole," wrote Muffy Walker, Corps chief of the Regulatory Branch, Seattle District, in a statement. "The Corps is committed to fully complying with the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) regulations and all the other applicable legal requirements when making the final permit decision."

The City of Auburn has taken no position on the GPT project.

"Our main focus this legislative session is closer to home, the completion of (State Route) 167 – a vital link to the Port of Tacoma that will fuel an estimated $10.1 billion in job and economic growth," said Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis.

The GPT scoping process has collected public comment with the intent of designing the best EIS possible.

The public will get its chance to comment during the draft and final EIS preparation.

From recent polling data, the public is backing the GPT idea. One survey conducted by Moore Information said the following about rail traffic:

• 77 percent support individual evaluation of each proposed export facility (vs. 16 percent who prefer a combined regional review of all proposed facilities).

• 74 percent support additional rail and barge traffic for the projects, viewing it as crucial to Washington's export economy and a sign of economic growth.

These results were consistent with other polls taken over recent months that show strong support for the proposed export terminals and coal exports, Hennessey said.

An unscientific Reporter website poll recently asked readers if they were concerned about coal trains passing through their cities. Seventy-six percent of Auburn readers said no; 55 percent for Kent readers also said no.

The debate will carry on. Sides will continue to inspect the issue. Nothing is certain. The process promises to extend well into next year, possible longer.

Those pushing for the coal trains are committed to doing it right, secure more jobs without harming the public and the environment.

The public needs to stay in tune.

"We believe this is a region that depends on trade and exports. In fact, 4 out of 10 people in this region rely on trade for their living," Hennessey said. "These terminals would indeed ship coal, but they would ship other products, as well. They would provide a critical economic boost in communities that sorely need jobs and tax revenue.

"We believe we can build these proposed bulk export terminals, and we can build them right – in a way that provides jobs and does not harm the environment."

For more information on the proposed terminal, go to www.ecy.wa.gov/geographic/gatewaypacific/.



Kent City Council raises concerns about coal trains: http://www.kentreporter.com/news/187338941.html

Let's stay on track, find solutions with coal trains | Keikkala: http://www.kentreporter.com/opinion/189272311.html

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