RFK (Jr., not a hologram)
  • RFK (Jr., not a hologram)

The glorious sunshine wasn't the only thing drawing the downtown lunch crowd to Pioneer Square this afternoon. The Sierra Club/Columbia Riverkeeper's Power Past Coal Rally—featuring coal activist and famous guy Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—attracted hundreds of supporters and curious bystanders alike, including City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen and Mayoral hopeful Rep. Jefferson Smith. The rally aimed to focus local attention on a Northwest issue: The possibility of major coal export buisnesses setting up shop along the Columbia River.

A few major coal companies have their eyes on western ports along the Columbia, which could lead to a significant increase in coal trains along the river and through riverfront towns, including Portland. The leading local complaint is that these trains will likely carry uncovered coal cars, kicking off potential coal dust pollution along the tracks in North Portland.

A representative from Oregon's Physicians for Social Responsibility gave a lengthy rundown on what coal dust could do to a healthy community. Just a few: Asthma, birth defects, mercury poisoning.

"I am deeply concerned," said Chair Jeff Cogen. Cogen also alluded to Governor John Kitzhaber's recent request for an environmental impact review of the coal ports and Portland General Electric's recent statement on the coal trains. "If PGE says the coal trains are too dirty to be next to their energy plant, then that's saying something," said Cogen.

Kennedy, who has been working against coal—with a specific focus in West Virginia—for 30 years, illustrated the devastating impact coal can have not only on the health of a city, but on its democracy. "Coal will undermine everything that you love," said Kennedy. "I've seen what it's done to small Appalachian towns. It's ruined democracy, corrupted politicians and literally drove people out of town. Do not let it corrupt this community. You are at the front lines of this battle."