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Environmental leaders warn about coal trains

In a workshop on the impact of transporting coal, oil and nuclear waste through the region, presenters focused on the impact of moving coal through Spokane and Eastern Washington from Montana to ports near Bellingham and Longview, Wash., St. Helens and Coos Bay, Ore., and Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C.

Environmental Panel
Jon Snyder, Amber Waldref, and Jessie Dye panelists

Jessie Dye of Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power and Light from Seattle, and City Council members Amber Waldref, formerly with The Lands Council, and Jon Snyder of Out There Monthly, were the presenters.

Jessie said while coal was important to the Industrial Revolution, it’s now “the worst most ubiquitous fossil fuel polluter, damaging our lungs and water supply,” she said, describing the United States having as much coal resources as Saudi Arabia has oil.

“A solution to stop coal from contributing to global warming is in our back yard,” she said, calling for local activists to take action, as those who stopped more than 20 coal plants from being developed in Texas in the last 10 years.

Coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming could be headed to China, where it would be burned, enter the atmosphere and return to pollute the air here, Jessie said.

Around the United States, the Sierra Club is also working to close old and dirty coal plants.  Only a handful of new coal plants have been proposed in the last five years.  In Washington, it partnered with local groups to close the Trans Alta plant in Centralia by 2020 and 2025, she said.

While there will be no coal plants in Washington or Oregon in 13 years, Jessie said, “we cannot rest.   The Powder River Basin coal has to stay in the ground, even though it’s profitable to coal companies because China wants more energy.  The future is renewable sources, like wind and solar, made here.

“For Spokane, as a railroad hub, up to 50 mile-long coal trains a day would pass through to cross Washington to go to the deep-water ports and return.

“We urge faith leaders to oppose the trains,” she said.  “ Stopping coal from going through Spokane can make a huge impact.”

Jesse described some effects of trains going through Spokane:

• It would mean several hours of delay and safety hazards for people who drive across railroad crossings each day.  Trains would also limit access for emergency vehicles. 

• More overpasses would be built, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

• Coal dust will fly off open freight cars, whether they are full or empty, creating air pollution and settling in buildings. 

• Water quality would decline on a strip along the tracks as dust flies off.

• Trains would just pass through, bringing no jobs to Spokane.

As communities in Texas said no to ‘no’ to new coal-fired plants, communities in Washington can say ‘no’ to coal trains,” Jessie said. “Because all the rail lines pass through Spokane, it has enormous power in preventing a climate calamity.”

Amber calls for looking at “the cumulative impact on all communities and population bases” of 1) coal dust as a public health concern, 2) diesel from train fuel entering the air, ground and water, and 3) railroad lines currently operating near capacity for freight shipped to the community and bringing jobs.

Jon, who has been involved with the Complete Streets effort, said much of Spokane’s development has created sprawl because oil subsidies make oil cheap.

He said that with City Council passing Complete Streets, the quality of life will be enhanced by having the streets more friendly to walkers and bicycle riders.

With the city responsible for maintaining streets, he said, federal transportation funds are needed for many local transportation projects, not for trains to pass through town faster.

“Each bridge would divert $20 million from safety, complete streets or street repairs,” he said.

“Spokane keeps annexing, because the county keeps doing urban style development on the edges of the city,” Jon said.

Workshop moderator Lynda Maraby of the Faith Action Network and the Faith and Environmental Network, said that while the Keystone pipeline will not go through Nebraska, another site may be through Eastern Washington near Spokane.

She urged participants to inform faith communities of the need to consider health, not just costs.

Jessie said community action was key to challenging the pipeline going through the watershed in Nebraska, as it was in Texas. 

She called for organizing groups to say no not only to the coal trains, but also to the possibility of the oil pipeline.

“If community groups protest and do lawsuits, it raises costs so coal is less profitable,” Jessie said.

In discussion, Rachael Osborn of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Spokane said she fought the railroad fuel depot in North Idaho and lost, despite community activism.  She asked who is the decision maker to stop the trains. Jessie said it’s State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. 

On nuclear waste, Amber has worked to block trucking nuclear waste to Hanford, noting that along transport routes, there could be up to 800 cancers based on past impact studies.

“Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the world.  The governor has consistently pushed the federal government to clean up the waste,” she said.  “Spokane is a potential route for transporting waste there.  Before any new waste comes to Hanford, the millions of gallons of radioactive waste there should be cleaned up and turned into glass. We don’t need to add more waste to the contamination already seeping into the Columbia River.

The City Council has passed a resolution not to send waste through Spokane to Hanford, but corporations and the federal government pit states and communities against each other.

“We need constant vigilance to clean up that waste,” Amber said.

For information, visit or call 456-337.