Guest opinion: Coal and our community don’t mix

Guest opinion: Coal and our community don’t mix


As a longtime Skagit resident I am very concerned about the proposed coal export project at Cherry Point near Bellingham. If approved, the proposed terminal would ship millions of tons of coal each year to China and other Asian nations. Right now, the proposal is for 24 million tons each year, but that is just to start.

Fred Palmer, a senior vice president for Peabody Energy (which is partnering on the proposal), was quoted saying the terminal “could reach up to 50 million tons per year.” To put that number in perspective, that’s 10 times the amount of coal used by Washington’s only coal-fired power plant, which last month agreed to transition off coal by 2025.

These millions of tons of coal would arrive in Bellingham via trains that come from Montana and Wyoming and travel across our state, right through the heart of Skagit County. Shipping 50 million tons of coal annually would mean 18 to 20 more coal trains clogging our communities every day. Currently there are six coal trains going through Skagit County each day.

I am very concerned about how this huge increase in train traffic would affect our quality of life and safety. The delays at rail crossings impact everything from people trying to get to work, drivers trying to get food to market, and parents picking up children at school. And what happens to the response time of fire trucks, police and first responders?

These coal trains would be uncovered, as they are now, and would spew toxic coal dust all along the train routes. According to Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad studies, each train can lose up to 3 percent of its cargo en route. These trains would have 150 cars and be up to 1.6 miles long, with 100 tons of coal in each car.

I don’t want our beautiful, productive farmland to be contaminated with this toxic mess, any more than I think our children should be exposed to toxic pollution from diesel exhaust from train engines. Multiple studies draw links to coal dust, and soil and water contamination, and to exhaust and children’s respiratory problems. Diesel exhaust is linked to stunted lung development, increased probability of heart attacks, lung cancer, worsening asthma and infant mortality.

These health risks and threats to our economy seem completely out of line with any limited benefits from the terminal. We can’t afford to lose working farmland or pay for increased health costs.

There’s also the not inconsiderable question of climate change. Burning 50 million tons of U.S. coal in China, every ton of it coming though this cherished place we call home, would produce more global warming pollution than all the cars in Oregon and Washington combined in one year. As a rural resident who is deeply connected to the natural cycles of our world, I don’t want any more increases in extreme weather such as floods, droughts and catastrophic fires. We’re already seeing enough weird weather, most of which hurts farmers’ bottom line.

This project just doesn’t make sense for Washington, and I want to make sure that Skagit voices are heard in the debate. Decision makers have been viewing this project with a narrow lens, one that isn’t taking into account the impacts on our lives and livelihoods.

The developers want us to believe this is a “done deal,” but it is not. We need to be loud and clear in voicing our concerns. Please call Gov. Gregoire and Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, and tell them “no coal export through Washington state.”

If you’d like to learn more, visit

• Thomas Wake owns 22 acres of farmland near Blanchard. He is treasurer of the Blanchard Community Club, and a board member for the Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Coast Watch Society. He is retired from the manufacturing business.

Some of the data and health effects described in this column come from the scientific studies cited below:

1) Source for coal dust figures:

2) Sources describing soil contamination:

• “Coal Dust Pollution Effects on Wetland Tree Species in Richards Bay, South Africa.” Wetlands Ecology and Management. Vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 509-515. Oct 2005.

• “Rainfall harvesting and coal dust: the potential health impacts of trace elements in coal dust in rainwater.” Air Quality & Climate Change; May2009, Vol. 43 Issue 2, p23-30, 8p, 1 Diagram, 5 Charts, 1 Graph.

• “Effects of coal dust on plant growth and species composition in an arid environment.” Journal of Arid Environments, 37 (3) pp. 475-485, 1997.

• Specific study for coal dust contamination of soil: William J. Bounds and Karen H. Johannesson, “Arsenic Addition to Soils from Airborne Coal Dust Originating at a Major Coal Shipping Terminal,” Water, Air, & Soil Pollution, June 21, 2007, 185: 195-207.

• Study of dust contamination of water: Ryan Johnson and R.M. Bustin, “Coal dust dispersal around a marine coal terminal (1977–1999), British Columbia: The fate of coal dust in the marine environment,” International Journal of Coal Geology, Volume 68, Issues 1-2, 1 August 2006, Pages 57-69.

Douglas L. Cope and Kamal K. Bhattacharyya, “A Study of Fugitive Coal Dust Emissions in Canada,” Chapter 8: Coal Terminals: Fugitive Dust Emissions and Control, prepared for The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, November 2001. No Web link.

3) Some sources for the health effects of diesel exhaust:

“Childhood Incident Asthma and Traffic-Related Air Pollution at Home and School.” Rob McConnell et al. Environmental Health Perspectives; July 2010, Vol. 118 Issue 7, p1021-1026, 6p, 5 Charts.

“Childhood Asthma and Exposure to Traffic and Nitrogen Dioxide.” Epidemiology; November 2005, Volume 16, Issue 6, pp 737-743.

“Association of fine particulate matter from different sources with daily mortality in six U.S. cities.” F. Laden et al. Environmental Health Perspectives 2000 Oct; Vol. 108 (10), pp. 941-7.

“Concerns About Adverse Health Effects of Diesel Engine Emissions.” Harriet Ammann, Matt Kadlec; December 2008, WA State Department of Ecology.

“Focus on Diesel Exhaust Health Risks: Microsoft Columbia Data Center.” Cathy Cochrane; September 2010, WA State Department of Ecology.

“Health Risk Study for the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad Spokane Railyard.” Charles E. Studer; June 2010, Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.

4) The carbon pollution created by 50 million tons of coal is a calculation by Eric de Place using Department of Energy stats. You can find the math here:


Blanchard Hall members are encouraged to leave a comment. We would love to hear from the community on this issue.

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