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Cities and States Have Limited Say over Coal Transport to China

A Seattle resident displays her opposition to coal trains at a public forum on the issue.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal accounts for about 70 percent of China’s total energy resources. With the largest population in the world and ruthlessly rapid industrialization, this means China burns more coal than any other country. And although Indonesia and Australia were the biggest exporters of coal to China in 2011, it appears the U.S. is trying to expand in that market by transporting coal to China from the Pacific Northwest.

But from Bellingham to Portland, critics have been fervently organizing and campaigning in opposition to the proposed railways and facilities that will pass through the major Pacific Northwest cities. Government representatives like Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn; city councils, including Portland and Seattle; and advocacy groups, such as Coal-Free Bellingham, have been waging a war against building new coal ports on our shores.

As vocal as these groups may be, city and state governments do not have jurisdiction over railroads that span multiple states. As Joel Connelly writes in the Seattle P.I., the coal in question originates in Montana and Wyoming mines and merely crosses through the Pacific Northwest on its way to China, its fate is determined by the federal government. So while Washington State is phasing out its last coal plant, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing permit applications for deep sea export ports at Longview and Cherry Point.

However, a joint study by federal, county and state authorities carries more weight. Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can grant a permit for a terminal in Cherry Point, they must team up with Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Ecology to conduct evaluations of the environmental and economic impacts of coal export ports. The Gateway Pacific Terminal Project is consequently inviting public suggestions for the focus of their study until January 21. Whether to grant a permit depends on what the studies show.

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To speak up about what transporting coal through Washington means to you — whether it is the creation of jobs or the negative side effects of coal dust and diesel emissions — go to our Northwest Crosstalk poll and make your voice heard. You can also check out the study’s site at for some of the pros and cons of the project and details about where and when informational meetings will be taking place.

Published September 26th, 2012

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