Coos Bay Coal Port: Continued Coal Use Makes No Sense

Coal is unquestionably one of the most expensive and dangerous fossil fuels on the earth when externalities such as health and environmental impacts are correctly figured into the equation.  For that reason alone, plans to export Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and Montana to China and other Asian countries through any ports in Cascadia–and Coos Bay specifically–makes absolutely no sense at all.

Coos Bay Coal Terminal Details:

Projected coal shipments: 10 million metric tons (11 million short tons)

Destination: Korea

Purpose: Power Generation

Trains: Coal is shipped in “unit” trains which means that all the cars on the train are filled with coal and go to one location as a unit.

Unit Train Facts (at 10 million metric tons):

4 Locomotives per train

125 Coal cars per train

100 tons per car

17,500 tons gross weigh per train

800 trains per year

1600 train trips per year

4.38 train trips per day

1.3 mile-long trains

5.7 miles of trains of new trains per day

5 train whistles per at-grade crossing per trip or 6800 blasts per crossing per year


All coal terminals have coal dust problems when storing coal in open piles

Winds mostly out of northwest will blow dust into Coos Bay and across water to airport and settled areas

Occasionally winds blow in different directions and blow hard which will spread dust into the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.


Cape-class(too large to pass through the world’s shipping canals) bulk carriers carrying carrying up to 200,000 tons

As careful as ports are in loading, dust covers the decks of ships and drops into the water in Vancouver their coal terminal has created a “dead zone” around the terminal.

Representative Types of Impacts and Issues

Climate Change and Air Pollution: Ten million metric tons of coal–even low BTU coal–when burned yields anywhere from 15-30 metric tons of carbon dioxide a potent greenhouse gas.  Sending this oversea does not protect us as roughly 25% of particulate pollution in Los Angeles comes from China.

Mercury pollution needs to be considered as well.  Studies conducted in the Northwest are indicating that much of the new mercury pollution being visited on the Pacific Northwest comes from Asian sources such as coal-fired power plants.  It has been said that when we export coal we–through the same action–import pollution.

Shipping: Because they are generally under powered and have small rudders, bulk carriers have historically been the lest safe large ships on the sea.  Bulk carries and other trans-oceanic carriers also burn bunker fuel while in international waters which is essentially the dredge of the oil refinery process with up to five percent sulfur content.  And these bulk carriers–on their return trips–fill their bilges with waters from foreign harbors which often contain alien invasive species.  They are required to dump their bilges before entering US waters but there is esentially no monitoring of this activity.

Ocean Acidification:  Much of our coastal sea life in Cascadia is currently impacted by the fact that our marine waters are becoming increasingly acidic.  Additional carbon dioxide as well as sulfur and nitrogen emissions from coal fired power plants only make this situation worse.  One example of an impact is retarded shell growth in oysters and clams.

Diesel Particulates: Diesel particulates emitted by trains and ships in port is a major health and environmental problem.  Diesel particulates are linked to heart and respiratory diseases as well as cancers.  In addition, the nano particles (one billionth of a meter or less) that are emitted from diesel engines and currently unregulated.  These nano particles from diesel engines have been shown to cause brain damage in some animals and are being investigated as one of the factors contributing to the global decline of bees.

It is important to note here when looking at diesel particulates that emissions are highest when the engines are working hardest.  At 17500 tons gross weight for these trains, the four locomotives are always working very hard and hardest when they are accelerating after being stopped which often happens in cities.  Diesel particulate emissions will also be an issue in the Coos Bay area as these large cape-sized ships burn more than four tons of fuel a day when sitting at the docks to keep their systems running.

Coal Dust on Dunes and in Waterways:  Uncovered coal cars traveling from the mines lose coal in transit.  Powder River coal is soft and particularly prone to crumbling and making dust.  While the amount lost during a given time varies it is known that coal dust leaves coal cars through a process known as “lifting” whenever it is subjected to winds in excess of about 22 miles per hour.  Tracksides along the Columbia River and the Washington coast hundreds of miles from the mines all have coal dust and chunks along their tracks.  Because of the above dust issue and the frequencies of coal train derailments, there is great concern locally about the section of rail running from Eugene to Coos Bay as these tracks cross salmon-bearing rivers and important waterways for ducks and other waterfowl more than 150 times.

In addition, to coal dust lost from trains, coal dust is also blown from open storage piles  regardless of the wetting process.  The area around the terminal and the adjacent Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area are nearly constantly windy.  One has only to look at the wind-sculpted sand dunes to understand the impact this wind will have on friable piles of coal.

Energy Security:  In a very real sense the only reason that a nation would buy coal from a nation 7000 miles away rather than from sources on their own continent is that our prices are too low.   Our prices are too low because during the senior Bush administration no one wanted to buy the low BTU coal from the Powder River Basin.  So in order to create demand the Bush I team de-certified the Powder River Basin as a coal production area and softened the bidding process as well as the environmental compliance requirements.  That created demand and now roughly 40% of our domestic coal comes from Powder River.  Even though the market has been created, the area has not been re-certified and so the lax bidding process and environmental standards remain.  The end result of that is that Peabody energy recently purchased coal for $ 0.25 per ton–cheaper than dirt.  With coal selling for more than $110/ton this seems like a poor deal for the American tax payer and a great deal for multi-national corporations and Asian countries wanting to accelerate their economies.

Port Dredging:  As with the LNG facility proposed for Coos Bay, the coal terminal will require significant dredging to accomodate these large ships.  The amount of material removed from this estuarine setting is estimated to be the equivalent of 14 times the volume of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.  The Coos Bay complex (bay, river, and estuary) are sensitive habitats and known for their fisheries including salmon, trout and crabs.  The impact of this construction will impact all these popular and commercially valuable fisheries.

Local Business Isolation:  Long trains mean long delays at grade crossings all along the 800 or so mile delivery route from the Powder River Basin to Coos Bay.  While this will impact everything from the cost of refuse removal to postal delivery, this is likely to impact small businesses the most when they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks from their customers.  Overpasses are one possible solution to this impact but federal law limits the railroad’s financial participation in these elective safety investments to less than 10% so the public would have to bear at least 90% of these costs.

Emergency Service Interuption:  When it comes to heart attacks and some other emergency medical situations time is of the utmost importance.  Here a mater of minutes mean the difference between life and death.  Large, heavy trains travel at slow speeds through settled areas and often use tracks as defacto rail sidings when traffic conflicts happen.

Noise: Though often considered on the lower end of impacts, the additional noise (rail friction) associated with coal trains and also their five whistle blasts per grade crossing constitute considerable noise.  Studies indicate that noise leads to stress and stress leads both to lowered health and decreased productivity at work.  These impacts should not be trivialized.

Jobs: Coal terminal proponents often focus on jobs and what jobs will be created by these facilities.  Studies looking at the record of the coal industry at delivering promised jobs indicates that they deliver about 50% of those jobs on average.  The job projections for Coos Bay in terms of jobs per ton of coal shipped, are twice what we have seen with other proposals such as Cherry Point near Bellingham, Washington.

But even if we accept the project proponent’s job numbers, it is really much more important to look at the overall impact of this project on jobs or essentially the net jobs.  Here we have to understand that we are exporting underpriced raw materials to a competing economy that is rapidly displacing manufacturing jobs in the US.  Given that this coal to be shipped from Coos Bay will be used for energy production in Korea, we can only assume that will result in more jobs lost in our own manufacturing sector.  Add to that the jobs that will be lost by small businesses impacted by isolation or increased cost and it is likely that the net of impact of this project will be few jobs in the US.

Property Values: The impact on property values is fairly clear as well.  While proximity to communter or passenger rail increases property values, the same is not true for freight trains.  In fact, a study in Los Angeles that looked at a doubling of train traffic over a long period of time found that–on average–house values within one mile of freight tracks experiencing the increase dropped by $2500, with larger decreases on houses closer to the tracks.

Related Links:

Eugene Register Guard Editorial

Coos Bay Letter to Eugene City Council 

Editorial by Lisa Arkin at Beyond Toxics

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