Big Coal

Coal Train in Skagit Valley

It’s hard to get doctors to agree on anything. They are a politically diverse group. And they don’t want to say anything that might alienate half of their patients.

But 130 doctors and health providers in the Bellingham area signed a petition warning of the health consequences if the proposed coal exporting facility at Cherry Point goes through.

As detailed in Anna Ferdinand’s article in the La Conner Weekly News the plans call for forty-eight million metric tons of coal to be transported yearly from Montana to Washington State, nine trainloads daily on a route that goes through Conway and Mt. Vernon and Bow on its way north. It will be loaded onto ships at the Cherry Point terminal and sent to China.

According to the doctors’ petition, that means 500 pounds of coal dust blowing in the wind, causing cardiovascular and respiratory disease, reproductive health issues and malignancy. Much of it will be blowing around the terminal creating an 80 acre pile that will blanket wetlands, infecting spawning herring, and disrupting the near shore ecosystem.

Only some of that will be affecting the Skagit Valley, so perhaps that is why Stuart Welch, a candidate for mayor of La Conner, supports the project, or at least doesn’t oppose it, because it will bring much needed jobs to our area.

And lots of people in the coal business are humming the same mantra: we need jobs.

But are these the jobs we really need? Someone is breathing that coal dust and, whether they live in this county or the next one. Does our concern for others end at the county line?

Coal is dirty energy. China’s economy is growing exponentially, and the Chinese understandably don’t want to hear about environmental constraints from the industrial powers that have been dumping bad stuff into the air and water since the Industrial Revolution.

But do we really want to enable China’s nasty habit? 16 of the 20 cities with the worst air pollution in the world are in China. My sister-in-law just got back from producing a commercial in Shanghai and she said the air pollution was intolerable. She’s a compulsive distance runner, but she had to stay inside to work out because the pollution was so bad. And this from someone who has lived in Los Angeles for the last 30 years!

If you don’t really care what the Chinese breathe, consider the studies that have shown that a significant amount of the mercury in our local drinking water and environment comes from coal burned in Asia. And there are measurable amounts of toxins in the fish we import.

The doctors were also concerned about the impact of 18 trains–the empty trains head back to Montana as soon as they dump their load—tying up traffic at our railroad crossings. The trains are each over a mile in length and take about 6 to 8 minutes to clear the intersection, which adds up to more than an hour a day during which emergency vehicles can be stalled.

Those long trains have anywhere from two to five diesel engines pushing them over the mountainous terrain and the air pollution from those engines is even more onerous than the coal dust.

The business owners in downtown Mt. Vernon and Conway won’t be happy when potential customers decide to shop somewhere else because they are tired of waiting for trains emitting diesel fuel particulates to rumble by.

As for jobs, Bellingham has a very young, very well educated population in a beautiful area known for clean water and pristine air. It’s a perfect place for high tech, non-polluting industries to set up shop—imagine Bellevue with no traffic or smog!

Let’s look ahead and invest in the industries of the future instead of the industries of the past. And let’s hope we can find farsighted public officials who can see the Big Picture and avoid making knee jerk decisions.

Originally published in the La Conner Weekly News by Mel Damski.
Mel Damski is the Producing-Director of the TV series “Psych” and winner of the Best General Interest Column by the Washington Newspaper Association