Yesterday, a group of state legislators sent a letter asking—if not pleading—for Governor Christine Gregoire to immediately convene a multi-agency task force to study the economic, environmental, transportation, and infrastructure impacts of building the country's largest coal export terminal outside of Bellingham.

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The routes that coal trains take--click to enlarge!
  • Reps. Carlyle and Lytton
  • The routes that coal trains take—click to enlarge!
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently drafting an environmental study to assess the impacts of building up to five proposed coal terminals in Oregon and Washington. However, state Representatives Reuven Carlyle (D-Seatte), Kristine Lytton (D-Anacortes), Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Seattle), and Jeff Morris (D-Mount Vernon) argue that the federal review will be too narrowly focused—it will only assess the impacts of coal terminals on the immediate areas in which they are built (for example, Whatcomb County).

In their November 7 letter to Gregoire, the representatives argue that the potential impacts far supersede such a limited scope, since the 1.6-mile long coal trains, running 24 hours a day, would cart 48 millions of coal annually through Spokane, Vancouver, and downtown Seattle:

As legislators representing varied communities and districts, we are concerned that the widespread impacts of these proposed projects can only be accurately identified—and thus included in the environmental review process—if the departments of Ecology, Transportation, and Commerce are directed to actively coordinate their analyses, data, and perspectives. Moreover, this information can help cities and counties to more thoroughly understand the broader potential impacts.

...In addition to the economic impacts, the possibility of exporting coal from Washington ports forces a
close look at our state’s rail infrastructure and what public investment would be necessary to allow for growth in the future. The prospect of doubling the tonnage of freight transported on our railways demands an inspection of Washington’s rail capacity, and the proposed daily addition of 60 trains in cities like Spokane highlights the need for examination of mitigation measures and cost. As a trade dependent state, we welcome this analysis as we strive to ensure a world-class transportation infrastructure for the coming decades.

The proposals would also force an examination of the impact that coal trains would have on the ability of Washington businesses to move goods to and from port, and the complications to vehicle movement that would arise in areas where roads and railways intersect. Additional rail traffic would exacerbate existing rail congestion issues, and the incremental impact of this proposal on rail is substantial by any definition. The likelihood of increased short-haul freight costs (for example apple transport between Wenatchee and the Seattle area) serve as a further externality of the plan. These impacts require a thorough analysis by ports, cities, counties, and the State, one not mandated by or possible through the SEPA procedure

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The deadline to sway the scope of the Army Corps's environmental study is January 21, 2013—meaning this multi-agency task force needs to meet and create a list of specific statewide concerns for the state Department of Ecology and Army Corps of Engineers to address before then. "With a coordinated approach among state agencies, and a particular focus on economic externalities and issues, there is greater assurance that the [environmental impact study] will fully identify the range of impacts across the state," they write.

Their letter comes on the heels of a traffic study, commissioned by the City of Seattle, that shows coal trains could cause one- to three-hour traffic delays downtown and in SoDo.

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