Traffic through Seattle's congested Sodo neighborhood could soon get worse. Much worse. And no, we're not talking about the proposed new Sonics arena.

Under ambitious plans to massively increase exports to China from the Powder River Basin coalfields of Montana and Northern Wyoming, 18 additional coal trains a day would rumble through the city on their way to SSA Marine's proposed new coal export terminal at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham, scheduled to begin operations as soon as 2015. Traveling at an average speed of 35 miles per hour through Seattle's busy port district, these 125-car, mile-and-a-half-long trains would block traffic at Lander, Horton, Holgate, and Spokane Streets 18 times a day for six to seven minutes at a time.

That's an average of one coal train every hour and 20 minutes. Traffic would be stopped for an additional two hours every day.

And not just in Sodo. In northern downtown, the coal trains would run straight through the middle of Seattle's acclaimed Olympic Sculpture Park, spewing toxic coal dust from their uncovered loads. The trains would also block vehicular and pedestrian access along the waterfront and dozens of other rail crossings throughout the city.

And that's in addition to the 40 or so freight trains that already roll through Seattle every day.

"Most people haven't stopped to think about how big this thing really is," warns US representative Jim McDermott (D-Seattle).

The Powder River Basin is the largest coal-producing region in the United States, providing about 40 percent of the one billion tons of coal burned domestically each year. But as the nation's power production shifts to cleaner natural gas, mining companies like Peabody Energy, Ambre Energy, and Arch Coal are looking for new markets. And that means China.

Currently, only about five million tons of coal travel through Washington State each year, much of that burned at the state's only coal-fired power plant in Centralia. But when fully built, the Cherry Point facility could ship as much as 54 million tons of coal annually, mostly to China, all of it traveling through Seattle.

Coal export terminals are also planned for Longview and Grays Harbor, as well as three locations in Oregon. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a trade group representing the coal exporters, says the terminals are all about creating jobs. But it could be bad news for Washington shippers that rely on a state rail system that is already pushing capacity.

At the Port of Seattle, the impact of the coal trains would be twofold. Port stakeholders have loudly objected to a proposed Sodo arena on the grounds that traffic in the neighborhood already threatens access for truckers. More closures would only exacerbate this problem.

But increased rail traffic presents a more existential threat. According to a 2006 report from the Washington State Transportation Commission, "chronic choke points" and "frequent stoppages" along the I-5 rail corridor are causing delays throughout the system. Freight tonnage was projected to increase 60 percent by 2025 even before the coal terminals were proposed, and the report warns that this shift toward high-volume rail could be "problematic for Washington State's manufacturers and agricultural shippers." Faced with increased competition from trains assembled in Montana and unloaded in Bellingham, Seattle shippers would pay higher prices while suffering further delays.

And then, of course, there's the coal itself, the dirtiest and most toxic of all fossil fuels. Burlington Northern Santa Fe estimates that as much as a ton of coal dust can escape during transit from each loaded car, contaminating communities along the right-of-way. But by far the worst impact comes from the pollutants and carbon emissions generated by burning it.

"I don't want to see China get cheap access to coal," says environmental attorney Peter Goldman. "It's doomsday."

So can anything stop this train?

States and municipalities are prohibited from regulating interstate commerce, and international trade rules prevent the federal government from restricting the export of nonscarce resources. So neither Seattle nor Congress has the power to forbid the trains from coming through.

McDermott recently introduced a House bill that would impose a $10 per ton excise tax to be shared among the states through which the coal ships to help pay for mitigation and perhaps even create an economic disincentive. "If we build in all the costs from the beginning," says McDermott, "maybe they'll think this isn't such a smart thing to do?"


Three permit-granting authorities stand in the way of the Cherry Point facility: the US Army Corps of Engineers, Whatcom County, and the Washington State Department of Ecology. Whatcom County council members seem wary of the proposal, but it's hard to turn down a promise of 400 full-time jobs. State commissioner of public lands Peter Goldmark appears to have somewhat broader authority to deny a lease, especially given the terminal's location near an aquatic reserve. But again, rejecting the terminal would be a difficult decision given the jobs at stake.

"This is not a debate that's gonna be a nice one," says McDermott, and he doesn't suggest that it should be. McDermott is looking toward the next, hopefully more Democratic Congress to push his bill forward, but for the moment, he's hoping to at least spark a conversation. "Folks can get angry and upset," says McDermott, "and things will begin to change." recommended

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that it is the Whatcom County council not the Bellingham city council that would grant permitting.