Commissioner Amanda Fritz talks with anti-coal protesters
  • Commissioner Amanda Fritz talks with anti-coal protesters

A crowd of about 70 environmentalists gathered outside the downtown Portland offices of the Army Corps of Engineers this afternoon to protest Oregon’s newest potential export, coal.

If you’ve been following this story, you know there are currently six proposed coal terminals for Oregon and Washington. If approved, they could move as much as 150 million tons of coal each year to energy-hungry Asia. According to the coal companies' current plans, six percent of Northwest coal exports will be shipped by covered barges, while all the rest will head through the region on uncovered trains. It’s these uncovered trains that have everyone worried. As the trains head from Montana and Wyoming to Oregon and Washington, the trains are expected to release as much as 250,000 pounds of coal dust per train into the air, according to the Sierra Club, which organized today's protest.

The environmental group paints a grim picture of the effects of coal dust floating off the trains. Incidents of asthma and emphysema have been known to spike in communities exposed to coal dust. The dust itself contains toxic metals including mercury, chromium, nickel, and selenium, all of which could end up in the water and soil on the trains’ routes. Even the chemical used to keep the coal dust down is itself toxic. Add to the list of woes, the coal being shipped is highly flammable. And then there’s that whole global warming thing. Oregon and Washington shouldn't be onboard to export a fuel that's only going to hurt the environment, say the groups lined up against the export terminals plan.

As Alex Zielinski reported back in April, many Oregon residents aren’t happy with coal trains moving through their towns, including North Portlanders who resent that their environmentally conscious city will be the routing point for trains headed to Coos Bay and Port of St. Helens terminals. But moving trains through North Portland pails in comparison to number the trains could do on smaller communities.

“The trains’ impact on jobs is going to be devastating to our tourism-based economy,” said Moli Thomas, a city councilwoman in Stevenson, Washington. Stevenson is about 50 miles from Portland, and the train tracks run smack dab through the center of the Gorge town. Thomas, who is one of about 100 elected officials in Oregon and Washington speaking against the terminals, told the Mercury the trains would divide her town in two every time they passed, making access to Stevenson’s downtown and waterfront impossible for the 40 minutes it will take each train to pass.

Governor John Kitzhaber has also publicly registered his discontent with the situation. In April, he asked the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management to perform a comprehensive impact statement on the terminals. Senator Jeff Merkley has made the same request. Not yet joining the chorus is Senator Ron Wyden, who, although he has met with anti-coal groups, has not yet taken a stance on the issue. Along with urging the Army Corps of Engineers to perform an environmental impact assessment, Laura Stevens from the Sierra Club told the Mercury she hopes her group can persuade Wyden to join the others in requesting a full environmental assessment.

Closer to home, Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who spoke at the event, say she is drafting a resolution against the coal exports. “This isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to coal,” Fritz told the Mercury. “There are serious environmental as well as economic impacts to this.”

Of course not everyone is against the new terminals. According to a recent poll nearly half of Oregonians favor the coal exports.