Please Take a Cold Hard Look at Coal Trains

"It's déjà vu all over again"
–Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra made the above quote when he watched Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the early 1960s.  I feel the same way—absent the elation—as I watch this coal debate unfold here in Eugene just as it did in Bellingham two years ago.  It is roughly all the same except for some of the details.  I have lived this before and it all came rushing back to me as I read the recent letter from the Port of Coos Bay director—David Koch—to the City of Eugene and the Project Mainstay  Economic Impact Assessment.  (Since it is all the same but the players, amounts, and locale, I will take the liberty of linking to Bellingham-based writings that have addressed many of these same issues.)
As I look at these two documents recently offered in support of the Coos Bay coal terminal project, I find myself scratching my head in the same spots I did two years ago when similar documents were released in Bellingham.  None of these documents are compelling.  I find it puzzling, for instance, that the port director—David Koch—feels compelled to brag about the 158 tons of carbon dioxide taken out of the air in the last 10 months by their railroad operations when arguing for a project that will eventually place more than 15 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere upwind from us.  Then you add in the CO2 from the 800 unit trains traveling to and from Wyoming and Montana (1600 annual trips for mile and half long trains).  And add to that the bulk carriers sailing to Korea and back that burn bunker fuel.  (Bunker fuel represents the dregs of the fuel refining process with up to 5 percent sulfur content its use likely erases any global sulfur budget benefits of Asia using our lower sulfur coal.)  
In this equation, it is important to note that bulk carriers of the size we are talking about burn about 4 tons of diesel fuel a day when in port.  With roughly one hundred of them going in and out of Coos Bay annually to haul this coal, that 158 ton bit of green house gas (GHG) progress would get erased sometime during the first month of operations.  Did Mr. Koch think we were going to be so distracted by this good news and that we would not see the bigger picture bad news implications of this endeavor?  This seems a little someone seeking your thanks for brushing a mosquito off your arm, while not telling you that there is a rabid dog standing behind you.  
With the massive dredging of the Coos Bay estuary and more than 150 water crossings between Eugene and this proposed coal terminal along the Coos Bay Railway, protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystem function is an important consideration to those of us who want to see salmon and steelhead runs improve.  Doing a little research we find that coal trains dump considerable coal dust all along their routes and every coal terminal in North America has a coal dust control problem that results in air, soil, and water pollution (please see Coal Dust is Complicated).  Some are certainly worse than others such as Seward, Alaska and Mobile, Alabama, but even the best and most responsible such as Robert’s Bank near Vancouver, British Columbia expel dust plumes that travel miles from their facilities and create oxygen-poor “dead zones” in the surrounding waters.  You can watch the decks of the ships at Robert's Bank after they are loaded and see them change from white to black.  When these legitimate concerns are raised, industry will retort that all that coal chunks and dust are lost near the mines so take a moment and watch this Seattle piece on coal coming off the trains and apply it to Eugene, Coos Bay and the 150 water crossings on the CBR or look at the photos just posted by our friends at Columbia Riverkeepers on facebook.   

When looking at the risk offered by the above, it is important to look at the players involved.  The Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) is a Korean government-controlled company (51%) that has a spotty environmental record globally.  It is interesting that Mr. Koch calls out KEPCO’s in-progress facility as remarkable.  I agree, but I find it remarkable that any facility that espouses renewables would lead with coal which is arguably the dirtiest and most costly fuel imaginable.  
Mitsui is another of the development partners.  This Japanese company has its fingers in a lot of pots in the US and globally including oil exploration through their MOEX subsidiary.  MOEX was just fined $90 million dollars by the US EPA for their part in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  Now I may be somewhat of a cautionary person when it comes to water and aquatic ecosystems, but I think foreign companies involved in the “Gusher in the Gulf” should be treated to a well-deserved time out when it comes to any future projects that might jeopardize our country’s waterways and fisheries.  
I am happy that the Economic Impact Assesment being shipped around by the Port and other project proponents is marked “draft” because the figures seem a bit inflated and the scope wildly inappropriate.  For one thing the job density of 16.5 jobs per million metric tons (MMT) of coal shipped is roughly twice what economist projected for the coal terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham (8.8 jobs per MMT) which was judged by many to be high.  With both using “industry standard” projections I can understand a 10 percent or so difference, but 100 percent variance seems highly unlikely. Jobs should certainly be one of the core considerations, but we really need to look at net jobs not just jobs created in Coos County or on the rail line because the implications of the rail traffic and the shipping of underpriced raw material to a competing economy need to be examined fully (please see This Country Used to Make Things and I Heard the Lonesome Whistle Call).  
Moreover, this Economic Impact Assessment seems seriously mislabeled because it really only looks at a narrow band of economic benefits covering a small geographic area.  Where are the figures for the impact that this level of train traffic with have on business activity including the rail shipment of other goods in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana?  How will this impact housing prices all along the route?  In Los Angeles a long term study found that doubling freight traffic reduced housing prices about $2500.  
And then we get into the whole issue of human health and diesel particulates.  Be prepared because once the local doctors express concerns about the health impacts ranging from childhood asthma to cancer of these particulates—particularly the nano-particles that are less than one billionth of a meter—the misinformation will fly about trains and GHGs as well as fireplace chimneys and particulates by weight.  Don’t be fooled, it is all PR deception (please see Deception Pass).
There is much, much more to be said and prepared for but as I hope all of us are getting ready to go to the Coal Hard Truth Forum this evening, I will end with a final point.  Mr. Koch opens with the classic argument of condemning the City Council for considering passing an anti-coal train resolution in the absence of facts.  Wow, that is a bold statement and absolutely un-true.  There is a mountain of existing information out there that indicates that jeopardizing human health and local economic activity and environmental integrity through these heavily subsidized coal export ventures makes no sense.  This is not a premature decision by any means and it is a decision being made by potentially impacted communities in Washington, Oregon, and Montana—what is not prudent is taking a supportive position with slim details provided by the Port (please see Of Garlic and Rail Traffic).  We need leaders on this not folks who are being lead to harmful conclusions.