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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Voices of Coal

Air Date: Week of

EarthFix's "Voices of Coal" project brings together diverse perspectives on the coal export debate in the Northwest. (Photo: EarthFix)

The US coal industry wants to build facilities in the Pacific Northwest to export their product to Asia. The planned ports have divided local communities. Ashley Ahearn, of the public radio collaborative EarthFix, tells host Steve Curwood about the debate and the EarthFix project, Voices of Coal.


CURWOOD: As the United States turns away from coal, the industry is looking overseas. Though Indian power plants may not be able to afford American coal, there are five different proposals for coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest aimed at the Asian market. Ashley Ahearn of the public radio collaborative EarthFix has been reporting on the fierce public debate these plans have caused.

AHEARN: The Voices of Coal project has come out over a year of reporting on the coal export issue here. And it’s just got people really fired up; mainly because of coal traffic that would come through the region, potential for dust, environmental contamination, diesel pollution...but also the huge potential for job creation, especially around the ports themselves. So as the economy’s down, that looks more appealing, especially for the blue collar jobs it could create.

What we’ve been doing the past year is really bringing together a really diverse group of sources, as any reporter does when covering a story. And I just started thinking, well, we have all these voices, they can’t all possibly be crammed into every radio story I do, but we can do audio profiles of these people that I encounter in my reporting, and the rest of EarthFix team encounters around the region. So this Voices of Coal project brings together all those people and their diverse perspectives on the coal export issue and how they see it affecting them and their way of life.

CURWOOD: So we’re looking forward to hearing those, and let’s start with the people for whom you found coal is definitely a blessing.

HILL: My name's Robert Hill, I'm a locomotive engineer with Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The coal exports coming through I think is necessary. My kids live here, they go to school here in Washougal, and I'm not concerned with the coal at all. I, as a conductor, when I've been on the ground, roll these coal trains by and I've never once been affected by coal-dust coming off. The railroad's been a fantastic opportunity for me and my family - it provides good wages, good wages, good jobs for families.

A coal train travels along Puget Sound en route to an existing coal export terminal near Vancouver, B.C. There are now 5 coal export terminals under consideration in Washington and Oregon to move coal from the Powder River Basin to Asia. (Credit: Katie Campbell/EarthFix)

Ashley Ahearn covers science and the environment for KUOW and EarthFix, a multimedia reporting project based in the Northwest. (Photo: EarthFix)

AHEARN: And that’s a very real sentiment that a lot of people have voiced with us and our reporters around the region. This one was produced by Amanda Peacher, she’s with Oregon Public Broadcasting, one of the partner stations for the EarthFix project out here in the northwest.

CURWOOD: But, Ashley, there were also people who were adamantly against exporting more coal - what kind of objections did you hear?

AHEARN: Objections come from a broad variety of angles. There’s the local, people who are concerned about coal dust and train traffic, and how that will impact their lives. There are also people voicing larger concerns about the global climate change. We know coal is the largest single contributor to CO2 emissions globally. So when you look at exporting potentially 100, close to a 150 million tons of coal from the northwest, that’s a large amount of CO2 and that has people concerned for the climate change impacts.

As you know, ocean acidification is already a problem in the northwest - we’re seeing that impact our shellfish industry. And that is from our global CO2 emissions. So it’s a very real concern, not just sort of a nebulous, ‘oh, climate is changing elsewhere.’ No, this is a real issue in the northwest. And one of the more interesting, connected sources I found in my reporting are the tribes. The tribe that’s closest to the largest coal export terminal, the Cherry Point Terminal which would be located near Bellingham, Washington, is the Lummi Nation, and they are a traditional fishing nation, have lived on the shores of Puget Sound for thousands of years, and I met a young leader, Jeremiah Julius, Jay Julius, of the tribe. He’s a crabber, fisherman, and has been for years, and he told me about why coal exports concern him on his boat.

JULIUS: Fishing is our culture, to us culture is fish. So it could be and will be very detrimental if the coal goes through. Because you're talking 465 supersize tankers that aren't even allowed to come through here now. When you have that kind of traffic out here going up to Alaska from here to China, this would completely be eliminated, no more fishing. The impacts that we're going to feel here for our children's children, for 25 years of jobs - it's all about money. I believe this is one nation under God, but if things like this continue to go thru it's not - it's one nation under money and it's really tragic.

AHEARN: And Steve, as you heard mentioned in that conversation, there’s concern over these large ships that are going to be coming and going through Puget Sound to deliver and take away that coal from the terminals. And that’s a big concern for many who live in the San Juan Islands. For many people around the country, this is a world-enowned tourism hotspot, and 400 plus tankers at the maximum for that Pacific gateway terminal near Cherry Point ,would be a significant increase in tanker traffic through this region, and that has fishermen like Jay Julius concerned as well as the recreational and vacation industries in the San Juans.

CURWOOD: That's Ashley Ahearn from the Public Radio Collaborative EarthFix. And we'll play some of those Voices of Coal in coming weeks. There's more about coal in the Northwest and in India at our website LOE.org.



Voices of Coal project

EarthFix homepage

Ashley Ahearn’s webpage

Click here for more information on coal exports in the North West


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