U.S. Coal Industry Export Plans Carries Heavy Risk for Northwest Communities and Nation

Sportsmen and Tribes Pledge Opposition

07-31-2012 // Eric Young
Coal Train

A new National Wildlife Federation report concludes that a massive buildup of U.S. coal exports through the Pacific Northwest would threaten public health and cause serious environmental degradation to the region’s natural resources. As coal continues to decline as a source of power in the U.S., the report warns that the industry’s plan to expand markets abroad will harm fisheries, endanger communities, and increase global warming pollution. Because of a decline in demand in the U.S. for coal, this fight over port expansion in Washington and Oregon will determine the immediate future of the coal industry in the United States.

“Sending more coal to Asia carries almost no benefits for the U.S., but we pay the price," said Felice Stadler, Director of Energy Campaigns at the National Wildlife Federation.  “Degraded fisheries, damaged communities, medical costs, harms to wildlife, and a continued burning of high carbon fuel will cost us dearly for decades.”

Currently, at least six coal port proposals are being considered in Washington and Oregon, which together would be capable of sending 150 million tons or more annually to Asian markets. The report is released jointly with the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.

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Listen to the full teleconference from the report's release.

"There are still too many unanswered questions regarding the potential impact of coal dust on the Columbia River watershed and the health of the river's salmon and steelhead runs, many of which are federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act," said Russell Bassett, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. "At the very least the Army Corps of Engineers should conduct a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to study the potential impacts fugitive coal dust would have on the Columbia River and the fisheries that supports billions of dollars in Oregon's and Washington's economies."

The report, “The True Cost of Coal,”  says ramping up coal exports means sending more coal-laden rail cars through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. This will leave more fugitive coal dust and diesel emissions in communities, deposit more mercury in waterways and create more air and noise pollution from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to Puget Sound.  

In addition: 

  • Each coal car can lose hundreds of pounds of toxic coal dust en route from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Northwest. 
  • There have been at least 30 coal train derailments in the U.S. since 2010 alone, raising the specter of massive coal contamination into rivers. A spate of them has occurred in recent weeks.
  • And whether burned in China or the U.S., coal would continue to speed climate change and crowd out cleaner sources of energy like wind and solar power.   

NWF issues a series of recommendations for policymakers in the report that would urge further study of the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the projects including the induced rail traffic, mining activities and climate implications. Federal and state permitting agencies must fully engage tribes in this process as well.

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