Coal’s impact too big to ignore

By Charles H. Gillis / For The Observer July 29, 2013 11:20 am
On July 9, it was my privilege to attend the Department of Environmental Quality hearings held in Hermiston regarding proposed construction of a facility at Boardman to transfer coal from trains on to barges for transport to coastal coal terminals. From the terminals, the coal would be shipped to China and other Asian markets. 

My initial reaction on learning of the proposal to ship U.S. coal to China was that it was eerily similar to the trade of scrap metal from the U.S. to Japan prior to WWII, i.e., strategically disastrous. However, in attending the Hermiston hearing and an earlier hearing in Boardman, I believe there are other more immediate concerns, which will specifically affect the Northwest if the mammoth project goes forward.

The brunt of the project’s impact on Eastern Oregon will be the increased volume of train traffic in the region. Recent train derailments locally, and more tragically, in Quebec, have made me concerned about the possibility of a train derailment along the Columbia River corridor. 

The Federal Railroad Administration says there were 389 train derailments between January and April this year, and almost 1,500 derailments in 2011. According to a page deleted from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s website, as much as 3 percent of the total volume of coal in a car may escape during its journey. The National Transportation Safety Board states, “Coal dust, along with other contaminants, have the potential of adversely impacting the proper drainage of the track structure.”

As a devoted fisherman, my concern is the potential impact of a new heavy industry requiring an enormous volume of train traffic on one of the finest fishing areas in the United States. The increase in both train and barge traffic will be exponential. 

Currently, the largest coal exporting terminal on the Pacific Coast is at the Westshore coal terminal in Delta, British Columbia. It annually ships 29 million tons of coal overseas to Asian markets. One of the proposed terminals in Washington state, Millennium Bulk Terminals, plans to export 40 million tons of coal annually. The Millennium terminal is only one of three new terminals proposed for Washington and Oregon.

What is the experience of people who currently live near the terminal in British Columbia? Port Roberts has a marina near the Westshore coal terminal. Boat owners find their white boats covered with gray soot. The manager of a boat-detailing business at the marina said owners are applying a coating of Teflon to their boats to protect them from the dust.

What is the impact of coal dust on salmon? 

Studies from the watersheds of B.C. show that exposure of coal dust to juvenile Chinook stimulated genes in the fish that convert substances in the coal dust into active carcinogens. 

Why is that important? 

Sport fishing supports nearly 31,000 jobs in the Pacific Northwest, generating $2.7 billion a year to the Oregon and Washington economies, much of which I supply personally. Given the barriers to migrating salmon that already exist in the Columbia and Snake rivers, salmon do not need further impediments to their survival. 

Salmon don’t swim on the tracks where trains derail, but run-off and proximity could spell trouble for these endangered, valuable fish.

 About the author

Charles H. Gillis, 65, of La Grande, is an attorney. He currently runs his own practice at 1306 Adams Ave. in La Grande. My Voice columns should be 500 to 700 words. Submissions should include a portrait-type photograph of the author. Authors also should include their full name, age, occupation and relevant organizational memberships. 

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