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A Rock and a Hard Place

October 8, 2012 - Such a pickle: we have the coal, but no longer want to burn it.  China wants the coal, but shouldn't burn it because of the resulting air pollution.  Coal mining companies in the U.S. are ready and waiting to ship their coal to China.  Citizens of the U.S. living on its west coast are adamant they want nothing to do with exporting coal.  That includes Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. 

Kitzhaber's April 25 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expresses his profound skepticism about shipping coal by way of Oregon's ports.  He has requested that a programatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) first be conducted for all five of the export projects currently being considered, as well as a comprehensive policy review.  Here is part of a press release announcing his letter:

"I have concerns about proceeding in this direction [exporting coal to China via Oregon ports] in the absence of a full national discussion about the ramifications inherent in this course of action ... if the United States is going to embark on the large-scale export of coal to Asia it is imperative that we ask - and answer - the question of how such actions fit with the larger strategy of moving to a lower carbon future ... Further, the environmental effects of further Asian coal-fired generation, in terms of air quality impacts on the west coast of the United States, have not been analyzed.  Increases in ozone, mercury, and particulates could have both significant environmental and economic effects in this country."

In response to requests from not only Gov. Kitzhaber, but the EPA as well, the White House Council on Environmental Quality convened a meeting of senior agency staff in August to discuss their proposals.  Representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Council met on August 10.  One of the primary concerns voiced by opponents to the coal terminals is the dispersal of coal dust by coal-carrying trains that would pass through numerous communities on their way to being shipped.  Communities in rural Washington and Idaho, though politically conservative, predict numerous problems that could be caused by the mile-and-a-half long, slow-moving trains. 

Imagine being an ambulance driver on one side of this never-ending train, trying to take a patient to a hospital on the other side of the train!

The Army Corps of Engineers has received over 30,000 letters in response to an environmental analysis it is conducting on one of the proposed terminals.  As much as eight millions tons of coal would be transported down the Columbia River as a result of its construction.  For those of you not lucky enough to have seen the Columbia River Gorge, or to have viewed Mt. Hood from its banks, you will simply have to accept my word on this: it is heaven on earth.  I have never been anyplace more beautiful.  The possibility that it could become a conduit for coal barges should and must stir every protective instinct we possess.  If the Columbia River is not worth protecting, then prepare to accept the fact that nothing is.

Next week, I'll write about why China needs to end its dependency on coal.  Until then, think about this:
  • China has the biggest toxic waste deposits on earth, made up of coal ash.
  • Every four tons of coal produce one ton of ash.
  • China stores coal ash in open air locations, where it can be picked up by the wind and sent across China - and beyond.
Thanks to Greenpeace and the Bureau of National Affairs for the info in this article.


  1. Soot, mercury, ash, whatever is burned in Chinese and Eastern Russian coal-fired plants blows towards Arctic, Canada and US - duh!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi Ned -

      All true; however, open air storage of coal ash is illegal in many countries because of the potential dispersal. Wet open storage is, unfortunately, widely permitted.

      Best, Vicki


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