Anti-coal campaigners continue to win in the Northwest

Protesters gathered in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square to call on Governor Kitzhaber to oppose coal exports in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest in March. (Power Past Coal / Alex Milan Tracy)

Protesters traced the shape of Oregon in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square to call on Gov. Kitzhaber to oppose coal exports in March. (Power Past Coal / Alex Milan Tracy)

There is an adage commonly spoken in many activist circles: Think global, act local. And several communities across the Northwest, linked together in their opposition to coal transports by concern for the health of their communities and of the planet, are aiming to do just that.

Feeling the squeeze of reduced demand for coal in the United States, a series of companies have proposed coal transportation projects that would see dozens of trains filled with Powder River Basin coal — one of the world’s largest deposits of the fuel — wind through hundreds of communities every day before arriving in Northwest ports for export to Asia. Since the terminals would help to bring hundreds of millions of tons of dirty fuel to the global market, the carbon impact would be profound. Coal from just three of originally six proposed terminals would, according to the Center for American Progress, “result in the same annual increase in carbon pollution as adding approximately 35 million new passenger cars to the road.”

As such, blocking these terminals has been called “just as important as KXL [the Keystone XL pipeline]” by Bill McKibben, who says it’s “one of the most crucial fights for American climate activists to win.” And winning they are, thanks to the collective efforts of seemingly disparate communities, all of which are concerned, for various reasons, with coal transport. The coalition, known as Power Past Coal, includes business people worried that dust will scare away customers, nurses alarmed by potential health impacts, and tribes aiming to protect ancestral lands, among others. One hundred and fifteen organizations comprise the umbrella group.

Just last month, the Oregon Department of State Lands, or DSL, denied a permit requested by Ambre Energy, which wanted to transport nearly 9 million tons of coal, every year, through the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River to Washington state and beyond. The victory came after a nearly four-year fight that included drawn-out obfuscation by Ambre, a call for rejection of the requested permit by 20,000 Oregonians and several elected officials including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. Excluding the possibility of a reversal during the appeals process, the DSL’s decision is historic — it’s the first time a Pacific Northwest state agency has officially rejected a permit for a coal terminal. It also puts one more nail in an increasingly sealed coffin for Big Coal: While there were initially plans for six coal export terminals across the Northwest, only two remain in the works.

Efforts from local tribes have been key to the successes thus far. Despite some tribes being offered substantial income from the coal companies in exchange for their support of the terminals, several have come out strongly against the companies’ efforts, concerned about the projects’ impact on the environment, generally, and traditional fishing grounds, specifically. It was this latter point that seemed to draw the attention of the DST. In their rejection of the permit, the agency wrote that the terminal could impact “a small but important and long-standing” tribal fishery, belonging to the Yakama.

With two other proposed terminals in the region still on the table, the tribe remains resilient: According to Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy, “The Yakama Nation will not rest until the entire regional threat posed by the coal industry to our ancestral lands and waters is eradicated.”

With the successful Oregon effort almost safely behind them, campaigners are focusing their efforts on two remaining proposed transport terminals in Washington state, which are much bigger than the one in Oregon was intended to be. Nearly 100 million tons of coal could be shipped annually from Longview and Cherry Point, Wash., to international shores.

“These are huge projects,” warned Beth Doglio, regional director for the Power Past Coal campaign and staff member of Climate Solutions. “They will change the nature of Washington state because they are so massive and there is so much impact from vessel traffic and rail traffic.”

Small but significant successes have been won thus far. Because of strong state environmental protection laws that require well-advertised public hearings, governing bodies — such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the state’s Department of Ecology — heard from hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens.

“There was an organic concern about these projects that led people to contact these agencies,” Doglio said. The agencies are now drafting environmental impact statements for both proposals, the outcomes of which will help to determine whether the projects go forward. Activists saw a key win when the Department of Ecology announced that in drafting the statements for Cherry Point, not only will the body look at potential local impact from the proposed terminal, but it will also consider the combined impact that the two proposals will have together — not to mention the impact that burning more coal in Asia will have on global warming — before making their final decision.

Depending on the outcome of both environmental impact statements, communities will again be ready to rally if need be. And again, tribes are expected to be at the forefront of the battle. The Lummi Nation, whose ancestral lands are near the Cherry Point terminal, is in the midst of a cross-country expedition to unite communities against the proposed terminal. Emboldened by the recent Oregon decision, Lummi elder and House of Tears master carver Jewell James said, “The state of Oregon recognized that tribal sovereignty and treaty fishing rights must be considered in coal export decisions. We expect the Washington State Department of Ecology to make the same considerations for Xwe’chi’eXen [Cherry Point]. Coal exports would devastate our fishery and threaten non-tribal fisheries, as well as damage one of our most important cultural sites.”

If companies’ efforts are successfully blocked in the Northwest, they’ll likely consider going through ports in the Gulf of Mexico instead. But doing so will require longer and more expensive transport.

“There are already proposals [there] and we’ve already been fighting them throughout the years,” said Laura Stevens, who works for Portland’s Sierra Club and has been a key organizer of the Power Past Coal campaign.

To prep for the fight, Doglio has already traveled to Louisiana and Texas to help groups craft a strategy.

There are also other efforts across the nation. Earlier this summer, Oakland’s city council voted unanimously in opposition to any transportation of fossil fuel materials along existing rail lines, as well as through waterfronts and densely populated parts of the city; similar resolutions have already been passed in Davis and Berkeley, Calif. San Francisco is also considering similar moves. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the City of South Portland, Maine has passed an ordinance banning the transport of crude oil from train to boat. And back along the rail route from the Powder River Basin to the Northwest, communities are raising their voice: a City Council resolution is in the works in Sand Point, Idaho, and an unlikely coalition of farmers, cattle ranchers, fishers and tribes are organizing in Montana.

The Oregon victory has galvanized campaigners across the country. Cathryn Chudy, a local activist who has been involved in Washington since 2010, says that the strong show of public resistance thus far indicates that communities across the country can win.

“We’re in it for the long haul and we’re not going to back off or go away,” she said. “If I weren’t hopeful about it, I probably wouldn’t be doing it.”

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