Will trade urban trash for coal
December 4, 2012

“Good jobs for Wyoming citizens and tax dollars for your local economies, that’s what we’re talking about,” announced Corpus “Cor” Legume, spokesman for the Consolidated Refuse Action Program (CRAP). Legume made the comment at a press conference announcing a deal by the Coastal States Association (CSA) to ship their solid waste to Wyoming.

Charlie West
Charlie West

“We’ve got 48 million people out here in California, Oregon and Washington and we’re going to bring all their trash to Wyoming,” said Legume.

Representing the CSA, Theodore “T” Hugger said, “Wyoming is the perfect place. Low population, wide, open, empty spaces, and a lot of holes in the ground that need filling.”

CSA Commerce Committee Chairman, Effer “Ev” Green added, “Now here’s where it gets really good — a real partnership for the CSA and Wyoming. Wyoming and its coal industry are bringing export coal to our states. Think of it! Those trains are headed home empty — 30 miles of coal trains running a thousand miles empty everyday! We’re going to ship our garbage east in those trains, and share those costs with the coal companies. Cheaper for everybody! And talk about sustainable mining, man, this garbage is full of all kinds of things — methane, metals from outdated electronics, and who knows what chemicals. This is a real win-win!”

It was a great dream while it lasted. But I awoke to a different reality here at home in the San Juan islands off the coast of Washington state. Coal exports are a one-way street with nothing good for us, just mountains of coal being pushed through the San Juan County waters.

Peabody Energy, BNSF Railway, SSA Marine and Goldman Sachs have decided that this little rural island county should be the watery gateway — home to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal — for the biggest coal export terminal in the entire United States, and they’ve got the money to make it happen. They’ve got political muscle, too.

In October, 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives authored a demand letter to United States Secretaries of the Army and the Interior. Among the signatories were influential committee chairmen, including Richard Norman “Doc” Hastings (R-Washington), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; Frederick Stephen “Fred” Upton (R-Michigan) of Energy and Commerce; and William “Bill” Shuster (R-Pennsylvania), chair of the Sub-Committee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. Joining the other representatives was Wyoming’s own states’ rights coal warrior, Cynthia Lummis (Republican).

They wrote, “… coal export infrastructure projects must receive priority and timely attention. We cannot squander this opportunity with self imposed trade barriers from delays and inefficient permit processing of coal export infrastructure projects.”

Proposed Gateway terminal
The proposal for the Gateway Pacific Terminal details how Wyoming coal would be transported to a West Coast terminal. (Courtesy of Pacific International Terminals Inc. — click to enlarge)

Enraptured with the vision of billions of dollars in profits for the coal companies, and perhaps with an eye toward their campaign funds, what none of the Representatives mentioned in their rush to sell off our nation’s energy reserves is that 51 of them receive substantial campaign contributions from fossil fuel industries including coal — the same industries they are charged to regulate on behalf of the American taxpayer.

With their districts far away from coastal environments — only one of the 53 signatories, “Doc” Hastings, is a representative of an inland district in the coastal state of Washington — the Representatives were highly critical, if not derisive, of this state’s citizens.

The Representatives wrote, “There are some in Washington who would prefer that companies be prohibited from exporting coal from our shores and their objections have been vocal and causing confusion. … Not unexpectedly many of these objectors are the same groups and individuals who also oppose the use of coal in manufacturing and electricity generation.”

There’s an irony here. In the islands we have no manufacturing. Less than 3 percent of our electricity comes from coal. Hell, we don’t even have any fast food joints, shopping malls or neon signs. Our main road has two lanes and a speed limit of 40 mph. The local waters are where we get a lot of our food. The biggest runs of salmon left outside of Alaska swim past the islands on the way to their mainland spawning streams.

It’s beautiful place. We’ve got uninhabited island parks, national wildlife refuges, great hiking, camping and fishing, and our economy depends on the sea. It’s hard to make a living here, and a lot of people count on the health and scenic beauty of the sea to bring in tourists and recreational dollars.

We may be the closest point of land to the biggest of the proposed coal terminals, but a promise of great jobs — if there are any real jobs — is a cruel joke. You can’t get there from here. At least not without a six-hour daily commute by state ferry, and then you’d still miss the start of the 8 a.m. shift.

It’s depressing just thinking about it.

San Juan County, Washington
The proposed Gateway Terminal would mean hundreds of bulk carriers passing through the San Juan islands in Washington state, pictured here in red. (Click to enlarge)

Wyoming and Montana residents might have the same attitude toward taking urban trash from the West Coast. Although my account of an urban trash-for-coal scenario was fictional to drive home a point, there is a legitimate economic development case to be made for such a project. After all, at least a handful of elected leaders in Wyoming have seriously contemplated radioactive waste storage as a potential revenue booster for the Cowboy State, and there is no waste more dangerous.

The point is; a proposal so critical as a new coal export infrastructure and market deserves to be scrutinized by a coalition of communities from both ends of the railroad route — and those stakeholders should consider the global implications as well.

Recently I headed out for a Friday night burger at our local tavern, a hangout for islanders from the bank president to loggers and fishermen, with a couple of retired scientists thrown in for good measure. Coal was on more than one person’s mind. The talk went something like this:

“When it’s time for the blockade, my boat’s gonna be there.”

“We’re selling taxpayer-owned coal for next to nothing, so it can be sent somewhere else, to run someone else’s factories, and employ someone else’s people while we don’t have enough jobs in this country?”

“It makes no sense, pollute the air with trains and ships to get the coal there, then they burn it and their pollution drifts back here!”

Four hundred or more bulk carriers, loaded with coal will be passing right by here each year. It’s tricky navigation for any ship, but these ships are the biggest of the big. Coal carriers will have no escort tugs or double hulls (required of an oil tanker). If just one of these coal ships loses power, or hits a rock, ruptures a 10,000 gallon bunker fuel tank, or decides to pump its ballast in our waters, we’re in trouble.

To hear public comments on the proposed terminal, The Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting over in Friday Harbor, our county seat, on November 3, 2012. Almost 500 people showed up. Most came by boat. The hall was filled to capacity. Many people had to look in from outside the door. Eighty-three people spoke, and 80 of them opposed the export terminal. Of the three who supported it, two were off-islanders. They didn’t come from here.

Up in Canada, about 40 miles north of here, U.S. coal trains have already started to arrive. There, people are putting their bodies on the tracks to stop the trains. One of them, professor Mark Jaccard, a leading thinker in British Columbia on the economics of energy, commented to me via email, “We are on a path to 6 degree(s) Celsius (almost 12 degree[s] Fahrenheit) increase in global temperatures over this century, which will cause an ecological disaster and great harm to humans …”

I read his words and gasped. A 12 degrees increase in temperature? Even our own Environmental Protection Agency conservatively reports a possible range of temperature increase from 2 degrees to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit, so professor Jaccard is not alone.

Do you have any idea the intensity of the storms that would create? It’s getting wetter in our islands as winter storms pick up more moisture from a warming sea. In bad weather I carry a chainsaw in the car because a lot more trees are getting knocked down. But that’s nothing.

Friday Harbor, Washington
Friday Harbor, Washington. (Click to enlarge)

Hurricanes suck up moisture and energy as they build over the ocean. The 100-mile long, 9-foot wall of water that drowned the East Coast from Hurricane Sandy at an estimated cost of $30 billion is a summer breeze compared to a storm spawned over a sea that’s 12 degrees warmer. Think of the 175 mph winds of Hurricane Katrina and its 16 foot storm surge in a storm that spans half the East Coast.

More than 55 percent of the America’s 300 million citizens live in coastal counties. More than 2,500 people per square kilometer live in a coastal belt from Boston to Washington D.C. And, what about Florida? The whole state could be inundated!

Maybe now is a good time to start thinking about Ronald Reagan’s notion of cost benefit analysis. You might want to ask yourself how many tens of billions of dollars is it going to cost us in the future so a small group of special interests can benefit from a few billion dollars exporting coal today?

— Charlie West is an outdoor writer and TV producer who has a strong interest in energy policy. He lives on an island in Washington just offshore of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal.

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  1. What can you say to this kind of rant? Charlie is lying and pretending it is a joke. Coal transport proposals do not include plans to ship garbage from the people of the West Coast to Wyoming on empty coal trains, let alone “all their trash.”

    The tag line of coal exports having “nothing good for us” reveals ignorance and selfishness in Charlie’s outlook. He is ignorant of the function of energy in the economy, separating himself from the general benefit we receive from fossil fuels, while broadening his narrow “not in my backyard” self interest to include -everyone?

    Then he shifts from actually looking at the pro’s and con’s of the issue he raised to the separate issue of campaign financing, with snide swipes at those who see some benefit in industrial civilization.

    Charlie’s comment on jobs is just bizarre. It sounds like he is complaining about a lack of jobs because his place is so remote, yet the terminal would bring jobs. If he is too far from the terminal for new jobs to benefit his area, perhaps he is too far for the activity of the terminal to harm his area?

    Is he worried about the sound of a large ship passing in the distance (silence), or maybe he is worried about the view?

    No rant against coal would be complete without anecdotal evidence about anthropogenic global warm – woops, I meant “climate change,” replete with doomsday scenarios.

    A port on the West Coast for Wyoming coal may or may not be a good idea. This guest column adds nothing to the discussion.

  2. Although I understand the concerns of the coastal residents, look at the impact on society in North Dakota. Your story has a point. Trash is one of our greatest energy source. Think about it, every person produces waste and if processed this trash would heat, cool, and extend our lifestyle for the future. Waste will be come the killer in the future. Planned obsolescence was the creation of past marketing plans and created the wasteful ideology we have today. Gone are the repair shops the small shops that keep reusable trash from the graveyard.
    If coal is to be exported then coal should be used to offset our thirst for money instead of quality of life.