Tensions were high at the “Can We Talk about Coal?” panel discussion Thursday night, which focused on coal export in the Pacific Northwest. Panelists and audience members alike got emotional during the discussion as dialogue was opened on this complex issue.
Tensions were high at the “Can We Talk about Coal?” panel discussion Thursday night, which focused on coal export in the Pacific Northwest.
Panelists and audience members alike got emotional during the discussion as dialogue was opened on this complex issue.
“This year we have chosen the format of a panel discussion on a really important issue in the region, and that is the export of coal through the Pacific Northwest,” PSU Environmental Sciences and Management professor Angela Strecker said. The event drew about 65 people.
The discussion was moderated by the Portland Tribune’s editor of sustainable life, Steve Law, and panelists represented both sides of the coal export debate.
Dr. Andy Harris from Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and Dan Serres from Columbia Riverkeeper were both against coal export and touched on the health risks of coal dust and export trains.
Proponents of coal export included Lauri Hennessey from Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports and Liz Fuller from Gard Communications, representing Morrow Pacific.
“Why would we want coal dust in the air we breathe and water we drink and the food we eat, including fish and crops?” Harris asked.
Harris went on to say that coal dust contains heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead, which are all carcinogenic and can lead to major health issues.
“Coal dust is also a trigger for asthma and causes emphysema and chronic bronchitis,” Harris said.
He explained that this is simply unacceptable, and that combined with diesel emissions from trains, citizens of the Pacific Northwest are in for some serious health problems.
“I really think that the mining and shipping of coal is a bit irresponsible,” Harris said.
Serres agreed with many of Harris’ points, citing coal dust and export trains as a serious problem.
“I [want] to bring it back to this coal dust issue…it’s a real thing—so much so that we’re finding coal in the Columbia River right now,” Harris said. “They lost about 3 percent of their load over the course of the travel from Wyoming and Montana out to here.”
One of Serres’ other worries is the effect of coal export on climate change.
“The climate change stakes are enormous,” Harris said. “In fact, the local export proposals here in the Northwest exceed their carbon impact.”
Serres directly addressed new proposals that opposing panelists brought up on coal export, saying that ideas that allegedly were supposed to be better for the environment were actually making things worse.
“What we’re seeing is an unprecedented onslaught of coal export proposals, to bring the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet down the Columbia River,” Harris said.
Both Hennessey and Fuller brought up the world’s reliance on coal as an energy source and the positive impact that new proposals will have on the job market.
Fuller stated that in the last year 42 percent of the world’s energy came from coal—45 percent in the United States.
“It’s a dominant source of energy both here in this country and internationally,” Fuller said. “And that’s not projected to change in the next 30 to 50 years.”
Hennessey reiterated this sentiment, explaining that even though people want to get rid of coal export it’s not going to disappear quickly. She added that this is true not only for the United States but for other countries as well.
“They’re not going to stop using coal as their power source,” Hennessey said.
Hennessey and Fuller also brought up the significant number of jobs that new coal export proposals will create.
According to Fuller, the Morrow Pacific coal export project will create about 3,100 jobs—around 1,000 of those being ongoing-operations-related and the rest construction-related.
Fuller also brought up the fact that the project is aimed at reducing the negative environmental impact that coal export is known for.
The project is using covered barges instead of trains to reduce coal dust.
“You wouldn’t see any coal trains going by your house in North Portland,” Fuller said.
Following the panel discussion was a question-and-answer portion, then a reception where attendees could meet the panelists and continue the discussion on coal export.
“This is a really challenging issue and [there are] a lot of different sides and perspectives to it,” Strecker said.