TOPICS > Science

Pacific Northwest Weighs Environmental Risks of Cashing in on Coal Export Market

August 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The demand for coal is booming in Asia, tempting companies in the Pacific Northwest to build export terminals and cash in. However, there is concern the trains transporting the coal to the coast will have an adverse impact on the local fishing and wildlife industries. Special correspondent Katie Campbell reports.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a look at the debate over exporting coal through the Pacific Northwest.

The latest figures from the International Energy Agency show a record-breaking global increase in carbon dioxide emissions last year. Coal accounted for 44 percent of the rise. But, in the United States, demand for coal is dropping. As a result, American companies are looking to send more abroad.

Special correspondent Katie Campbell from of KCTS Seattle has the story. She reporters for the environmental public media project EarthFix.

KATIE CAMPBELL: It’s the heart of the crab fishing season in the Salish Sea. This network of coastal waterways extends beyond the border of Washington State into British Columbia.

It’s one of the largest and most biologically rich inland seas in the world. Jeremiah Julius is a fisherman from the Lummi tribal community.

JEREMIAH JULIUS, fisherman: The whole landscape is sacred to us. There’s not much contaminant-free lands left in the United States. This is one of them.

Related Video

KATIE CAMPBELL: For hundreds of generations, his tribe has relied on the halibut, salmon and crab that thrive in these waters.

JEREMIAH JULIUS: Fishing is who we are. Fishing is our culture. And to us, culture is fish. It’s just in our blood.

KATIE CAMPBELL: But there’s a storm brewing at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham, Wash. This is where SSA Marine plans to build the largest coal export terminal in North America. Nearly 500 ships would travel these waters every year, carrying coal to the other side of the Pacific.

Asia now consumes more coal than rest of the world combined. In the next three years, countries there are expected to double the amount of coal they import today. That soaring demand spells opportunity for U.S. companies, says Bob Watters, director of business development for SSA Marine.

BOB WATTERS, SSA Marine: Our particular project, Gateway Pacific terminals, when built and fully operational at full capacity, would generate approximately $5.5 billion in foreign monies infused back into the U.S. economy.

KATIE CAMPBELL: This possibility has placed the Northwest in the middle of a controversial debate: Should the region build export terminals that would open lucrative markets for the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel? As the nation’s economy continues to struggle, can the country afford not to?

Gillette, Wyo. lies in the heart of the nation’s largest coal mining region. One out of every six people here works for the coal industry, people like Phil Dillinger.

Mining has provided a steady salary to support his family and send his four children to college.

PHIL DILLINGER, coal miner: It’s that stability of knowing that every two weeks, I’m going to get a paycheck. And that’s — that’s a huge, huge thing.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Dillinger’s job is loading coal into trains.

PHIL DILLINGER: So our job is from the time it’s dumped into that coal hopper all the way to the time when we load it onto the trains. That’s coal processing. So, that’s what I do. On an average, it takes a minute to a less than a minute to fill up one car, one train car of coal.

KATIE CAMPBELL: The United States relies on coal to provide about 40 percent of the nation’s energy. But in recent years, U.S. utilities have been switching from burning coal to burning natural gas.

That trend has pushed U.S. coal companies to search for customers in Asia. The most direct path would be to send coal trains through the river valleys of the Northwest to its deep-water ports, where ships can complete delivery to across the Pacific.

The only obstacle is the lack of adequate coal export facilities. Cherry Point is one of a handful of places in Washington and Oregon considering building coal export terminals. These facilities would allow U.S. coal companies to ship up to 100 million tons of coal to Asia every year.

If these terminals are built, communities along the railroad could see between 18 and 37 additional coal trains a day. And each coal train can stretch a mile-and-a-half long. Some scientists and physicians worry that these trains will have an adverse effect on the air quality around them.

Professor Dan Jaffe is a leading expert in atmospheric pollution. He’s begun to take a closer look.

DAN JAFFE,  University of Washington-Bothell: We stood on the bridge over the tracks at Richmond Beach and we measured particulate matter concentrations that were well above the health thresholds.

The data we have collected on diesel and coal exhaust on trains is very preliminary. I’d be disappointed to see a policy decision go forward without more information on the air pollution impacts.

KATIE CAMPBELL: In 2009, a BNSF Railway representative testified in a Department of Transportation committee meeting that as much as 645 pounds of coal dust is lost from each car during a 400-mile journey. And if a coal train usually has about 125 cars, the amount of dust could add up quickly.

BNSF now requires companies that ship coal to apply what’s called surfactant or a topper agent to coal trains before they leave the mines. They say this helps suppress dust by about 85 percent.

Physicians like Martin Donohoe, a Portland-based public health advocate, also worry about the diesel exhaust coming from train locomotives.

MARTIN DONOHOE, physician and public health advocate: We know from numerous peer reviewed population wide studies that there is an increase in asthma exacerbation when people are exposed to diesel particulate matter.

It’s important to realize that the particles from the coal trains are microscopic, ultra-fine particles that you can’t see. But they’re the ones that do the real damage because they make it to the deepest parts of the airways. So you may not be seeing it, but you’re breathing it, and it’s affecting you.

KATIE CAMPBELL: There are currently three coal trains a day that travel through the Northwest carrying coal to ports in British Columbia. Canadian ports are already operating at near capacity. They too would need to expand in order to ship more coal abroad.

Here at the Westshore terminal in British Columbia, about 1. 5 million tons of coal is waiting to be shipped to Asia.

BOB WATTERS: Westshore was built in the 1970s. So the environmental laws and requirements and regulations are much different than they are today. Comparing what Westshore terminal is and what our terminals are going to be, on an environmental basis, it’s looking at a 1970 GTO versus a Prius.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Unlike the Westshore facility, the Gateway Pacific Terminal is designed so the coal would be covered during the loading process.

BOB WATTERS: We’ve built in a great deal of design elements to protect the environment. We have all of our conveying systems on the terminal are covered. Any conveying systems that go out over the water are actually completely enclosed.

We don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. We think that you can develop family wage jobs and be good stewards and protect the environment.

KATIE CAMPBELL: For Jeremiah Julius, the environmental impacts outweigh the economic benefits.

JEREMIAH JULIUS: And they say we are going to lose all these jobs and taxes if we don’t go in, which to me is false because you can’t lose something you don’t have. We have our fish. We have our salmon. We have clean air. We’ll lose that. That’s losing to me.

To me, these tankers are the trains that killed off the buffalo. These tankers are going to kill my way of life. So to me, this is — it is a battle.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Before any of the coal export terminals can be permitted to be built, the potential environmental impacts of these facilities must be studied. It’s a process that can take months, possibly years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal and state regulators announced this week that they are extending the scope of the review process at Cherry Point to consider climate change, human health and the impacts of transporting coal by rail.

For the record, BNSF Railway Company is a NewsHour underwriter.