Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sixteen Tons and Whaddya Get?

A battle is being waged here in Whatcom County featuring that classic match-up of Business vs Enviromentalist, with a supporting Greek chorus of one-issue kibitzers.  While a thoroughly local topic, it speaks to a larger debate ongoing world wide.

'Business' wants to develop a deep-water cargo shipping facility in what is literally the last space available on the continental west coast of the U.S. where such a port can be built.  While it's capability would include handling containerized cargo, developers have their eye on, with the enthusiastic support of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, building a bulk coal shipping site--destination China.  Currently, soft coal mined in the western United States generally goes to a similar port about forty miles north, in Canada.

'Business' accurately points out such an effort would create hundreds of high-paying construction jobs early, then hundreds more permanent high-wages jobs when the area becomes operational.  Tax revenues would remain local, as well as port fees.  Many local business would see increased income by providing support materials and services.  New businesses would likely spring up for similar reasons.  All this sorely-needed cash would buoy the economy of the entire region.  A textbook example of trickle-down economics.

'Environmentalists' correctly notes that the proposed site is prime real estate for breeding an already diminishing stock of herring, which are among the principal prey of the Pacific salmon runs, some of which are now on the threatened list.  Those salmon, in turn, are the meal of choice for the local population of orcas (killer whales), recently showing signs of malnutrition themselves.  A textbook example of a hiccup in the food chain.

At its peak, anywhere from ten to sixteen additional mile-long coal car trains would whistle their way along the tracks overlooking the waterfront each day.  Anyone living, working nearby or even strolling through a bay side park has spent time counting the trains of one hundred plus cars already plying the rails as they rumble slowly by, or worse, grind to a halt across rights-of-way to allow another train to pass or to switch out cars headed elsewhere.

Also of concern is the dust that is sure to accumulate incrementally across the region from all that coal traveling through our parks, adjacent to and across our waterways, and past our homes and schools.  Tourism related business could be devastated.

'Business' counters by touting a promise to cover the cars to mitigate dust, 'Environmentalists' are suspicious and see such a covenant as the camel merely trying to get his nose in the tent.

To be sure, the Amtrak Cascade is a novelty--picturesque even--as it's dozen or so car breeze through, but all those heavy, ponderous coal cars would be coming back empty too.  That could mean as many as thirty or more added transits daily.  Almost certainly not an hour of the day or night would pass without bellowing whistles and the clacking, groaning, grinding and squealing that attaches.

The sheen of that shiny new revenue could tarnish quickly under such an onslaught.  Diminished home values, reduced desirability as a tourist destination and the certainty of increased death and injury tolls on motorists and pedestrians weigh heavily as well.

These are the central tenants of the argument from both sides--the nuts and bolts of the negotiation process--but at some point it begs a larger question:  Is a short-term gain in jobs and money worth trading for an accelerating catastrophe looming over the horizon?

While important, for me, it isn't really the means of transportation that lies at the core of this controversy.  It's the cargo.

On a fragile planet where destructive and disruptive effects of climate change are pushing entire ecosystems toward the chasm of collapse, and all but the most knuckle-headed deniers and apologists see the danger at hand, do we really want to be shipping millions of tons of this stuff to a country with lax environmental rules and virtually non-existent enforcement, only to see it returned to us as airborne soot, acid rain and cheap goods?

Do we seriously wish to fuel the power plants of the largest economic juggernaut threatening America's ability to compete for the future?

Even more fundamentally, do we want to ship this toxicity anywhere?  Or even dig it up in the first place, knowing what we know-despite the oxymoronic commercials touting 'clean coal'?  It seems like selling something like 'harmless smallpox'.

Bellingham and Whatcom County are routinely listed among the best areas to live, recreate and retire in the nation and it seems unlikely that having millions of tons of coal arriving via an endless parade of coal trains would enhance our reputation or improve our quality of life.  Let's think locally and act globally by rejecting this clinker of a proposal.

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