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July 20, 2011

The Coal Hard Truth

Trainloads of coal from Powder River Basin travel to Washington's coast for export.

This is not a modern-day version of the Silk Road. It's an insidious and toxic connection between the coal fields of the Powder River Basin and the energy-starved markets of India and Southeast Asia. And Big Coal is pushing to expand it by mind-boggling proportions.

Their plan is to increase their exporting operations by a whopping 48 million tons of coal every year, and their target is the bay side city of Bellingham, Washington, where they hope to obtain approval of a $600-million terminal that will in all likelihood clog this area's railways and docks. But before the trains start whistling and the ships start sailing, they'll have to answer to the locals who want none of that.

Coal Hard Truth1
Robin Everett of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign speaks at the "Coal Hard Truth" forum.

Earlier this month, more than 300 people showed up to the "Coal Hard Truth" forum in Mt. Vernon, Washington to hear more about what it would mean if countless tons of coal barreled through their communities with a one-way ticket to Asia. The event was organized by the Sierra Club, Transition Fidalgo, and ReSources, and supported by more than a dozen other environmental organizations.

With increasing resistance to new coal plants here at home, the exporting of U.S. coal is becoming more appealing to money-hungry companies, like Peabody Coal. Asia already burns 140 million metric tons of coal from the Powder River Basin every year. Proposals to expand in Tacoma, Grays Harbor, and Kalama have already failed because of local opposition.

"I am continually amazed at the level of community engagement on this issue," says Robin Everett, Associate Regional Representative of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, which has been partnering with local action groups and health groups. Plans for the terminal are still in its early stages, but it isn't too early to mobilize community members and prepare them for what will probably become a formidable clash with the industry in the coming months.

Coal Hard Truth3

The forum included speakers from Transition Fidalgo & Friends, the Skagit Valley Food Co-Op, and the "Whatcom Docs" -- a group of more than 150 doctors who fear the ramifications of locals' health if this plan comes to fruition.

There was a handful of detractors in the audience from a labor group. "I did get heckled when I said we should be shipping solar panels, not coal -- but the applause from the crowd completely drowned them out," says Robin.

Coal publicists have told local media that their plans would bring jobs to the area.

"Jobs numbers are debatable, but we want a future for Bellingham that consists of good, clean jobs that reflect the values of our community," says Robin. "The coal-export terminal threatens a plan to revitalize the waterfront that would create jobs and tax revenue instead of scarring our community and threatening our health like a coal terminal would."

At the event, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign signed up 30 people to comprise the Skagit Activist Team. And following the forum, an activist meeting in Bellingham drew 100 people to map out event planning and discuss public outreach. The coming months will continue to be busy as Big Coal increases pressure for approval of the terminal. "This is a great start to our campaign to stop coal exports in Washington and build a state-wide movement," says Robin.

(Top photo credit: Paul K Anderson; Other photos: Joelle Robinson.)

-- Brian Foley


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