Coal-export schemes ignite unusual opposition, from Wyoming to India

  • Mark Fix shows the area on his Tongue River ranch where a new rail line is proposed that would haul coal to the coast for export.

    Matthew Frank, Missoula Independent
  • Trains filled with Powder River Basin coal would move toward Northwest ports for export.


On India's sweltering Western coast, Bharat Patel heads a group of traditional fishermen called Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti, which loosely translates as the Association for the Struggle for Fishworkers' Rights.

Meanwhile, up in the arid breaks of southeast Montana, Mark Fix wants to preserve the rural character of his 9,700-acre ranch along the Tongue River, where a couple hundred head of cattle share territory with wildlife ranging from great blue herons to beaver and prairie dogs.

Toss in grassroots environmental groups in India and China, some big worldwide green groups, plus more than 300 doctors in Oregon and Washington, local governments in towns like Mosier, Ore., and Edmonds, Wash., Sandpoint, Idaho, and Helena, Mont., numerous Northwest tribes, and the Chamber of Commerce in Burlington, Wash., a small town proud of its annual Berry Dairy Days festival.

What do these disparate parties have in common? They've all recently become allies in an environmental battle in the Western U.S. All are concerned that some of the world's biggest coal and railroad companies want to begin moving huge amounts of that fossil fuel from our country's mother lode -- the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming -- on rail lines across the Northwest to new port facilities, where it would be shipped to voracious power plants in Asian countries, mostly China and India. This scheme would cause pollution, noise and congestion everywhere along the rail line, and seriously worsen climate change, among other impacts.

"At both ends, local communities are getting trampled," says Justin Guay, a Sierra Club staffer based in Washington, D.C., who spends part of his time in India working with Bharat Patel's group.

On the Powder River Basin end, mining companies like Peabody and Arch have shipped coal by rail for decades, mostly eastward to U.S. power plants. But stricter U.S. regulations on coal combustion -- which releases toxic mercury, other heavy metals, sulfur compounds and carbon dioxide, a primary cause of climate change -- and the use of hydrofracturing to develop new sources have made natural gas a cheaper, better fuel for domestic power plants. That's why coal companies want to sell to Asia, where India and China are on a coal-fired power-plant building binge.

The thousands of fishermen in Patel's group oppose the construction of two gigantic coal plants on India's coast -- each at least 4,000 megawatts, roughly eight times larger than the average U.S. coal plant. They say that the coal plants are blocking their access to the shore and marketplaces, spreading pollution and discharging hot water that harms fish habitat. India already imports coal from places like Indonesia and Australia, and many in the industry think that the Powder River Basin coal, thanks to cheap federal leases and easy-to-access veins, will be competitively priced even after it's hauled all the way to Asia. Patel says that "policy makers are too focused on developing industries ... at the cost of degradation of the coastal environment," and calls for "new solutions to ... climate change."

In between the Powder River Basin and Asia, the coal must pass through many cities in mile-and-a-half-long trains, up to 60 per day, not counting the return traffic. Six new ports are proposed in Washington and Oregon to handle as much as 157 million tons of coal per year (roughly twice as much cargo as the states' existing ports handle). The Whatcom Docs, a group of more than 150 doctors near one of the proposed Washington ports, are "deeply concerned about the health and safety impacts," because coal dust and diesel fumes  lodge in people's lungs, causing asthma, cancer and other illnesses, while long trains impede emergency vehicles trying to cross the tracks. Rancher Fix frames it more bluntly: "It's corporate greed -- making a buck on whoever's back you have to."

Of course, there would be benefits beyond electricity for Asia -- profits for investors and CEOs gorging at the trough, plus several thousand jobs in mining and construction (the companies would spend more than $2 billion on the ports alone), and taxes on the operations. But there would also be costs: In the communities split by the rail traffic, for instance, constructing a single overpass would require many millions of dollars –– costs that railroads typically outsource to the communities.

One portion of the scheme, the Tongue River Railroad -- a proposed 80-mile-long, half-billion-dollar spur to access an incredible 1.3 billion tons of undeveloped coal in Montana's Otter Creek area -- would force its way across Fix's ranch, condemning a three-mile-long path for the tracks, carving through bluffs, separating much of the ranch from the river, and destroying his peace and quiet. That's why Fix -- a third-generation rancher who worked as an engineer inspecting nuclear-missile silos before he settled beside the river in 1991 -- has challenged the Tongue River Railroad proposals, together with a ranchers' group he belongs to, the Northern Plains Resource Council.

The ranchers won a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last December that says the federal Surface Transportation Board must do a new environmental impact statement; previous EISes that approved segments of the Tongue River Railroad are outdated. On June 18, that agency, which tends to be pro-industry, began the EIS process. Other EISes will be done on the proposed ports by a stew of federal, state and local agencies, including the pro-industry Army Corps of Engineers.

The opponents want thorough evaluations that weigh all the impacts, with public hearings around the Northwest that would give time to speakers like Kimberly Larson, a staffer for Climate Solutions, a Washington group that advocates for wind and solar power. "The coal companies need a new market for their drug," she says, "just like we saw with tobacco companies," which emphasized overseas sales when health warnings and taxes eroded their U.S. customer base. Industry, however, prefers narrow evaluations -- a local hearing that only weighs the construction of a new dock, for instance. And industry is optimistic: In the last few weeks, a couple of companies leased additional Powder River Basin deposits -- with their eyes fixed on Asia.

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