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Coos Bay, Oregon is Coal Industry’s Latest Target

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View David Lawlor's blog posts
03 February 2012, 1:48 PM
Earthjustice challenges permit for largest estuary dredging project in state history
Coos Bay, Oregon. (Brian Burger/Creative Commons)

A new battle has emerged in the fight over proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Department of State Lands recently issued a permit allowing the Port of Coos Bay to conduct the largest dredging project in an estuary in state history. The permit allows for dredging of the first 1.75 million cubic yards (mcy) of a 5.6-mcy project.

The reason for the massive dredging effort: Coos Bay—a town of about 16,000 people on the remote southern Oregon coast—has been targeted for construction of a coal export terminal and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility.

Earthjustice, representing a coalition of local residents, grassroots environmental, and clean-energy groups, in early January filed an appeal of the Oregon Department of State Lands’ decision to green light the $100 million project. While the “multi-purpose” dredging permit was initially sought to develop an LNG import terminal, the Port of Coos Bay recently entered into a confidential agreement with an undisclosed coal export company seeking to send coal overseas to Asia, and LNG backers have changed their plans to now export domestic gas instead.

Earthjustice appealed the dredging permit in part due to concerns about the harmful impacts on Coos Bay waterways that serve as salmon and oyster habitat that in turn support commercial and recreational fisheries.

“The people of Coos Bay, not international mining corporations, should decide the future of this community,” said Jan Hasselman, the Earthjustice attorney handling the appeal. “The Port of Coos Bay should stop conducting its business behind closed doors and start leveling with the public. Shoveling American rocks onto China-bound boats is not an economic development strategy.”

Because the coal export project details have been kept in the shadows by the Port of Coos Bay, Hasselman says, the Port and the Oregon Department of State Lands is unable to accurately balance public need and benefit against the proposed project.

“You can’t conduct a thorough analysis of the project if you can’t judge its benefit or harm,” Hasselman explained. “And you can’t make that judgment if you don’t know what the coal terminal project is going to look like. We don’t really know very much right now because everything has been kept secret.”

With domestic coal demand declining and projected to fall further over the next few years, coal companies with mines in Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin region are looking for markets beyond U.S. borders. China is importing more foreign coal than ever before and industry insiders are predicting that Chinese coal imports will double by 2015. Powder River Basin coal companies are eager to establish coal export terminals on the West Coast to move their product across the Pacific. Currently, the only options for shipping from the western side of the North American continent are a lone coal export facility just across the border in coastal British Columbia and a few small-volume Alaskan ports.

Coal export facilities are massive industrial sites where coal is stored in open-air piles as large as 80 acres. Inevitably, coal dust from the facility gets carried through the air, polluting local waterways and soil, and threatening the health of nearby communities. The coal from Montana and Wyoming would be transported to the Pacific Northwest in mile-long trains with uncovered box cars spewing coal dust on communities on the way to port. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that the carbon emissions generated by the proposed Pacific Northwest coal export terminals would exceed those of the Keystone XL project that was recently dealt a set-back by the Obama administration

My interpretation of the article was that there could be no environmental or cost-benefit analysis if these deals are made behind closed doors. That is certainly important for the regional economy and if it is not conducted, then who is to say it would provide more jobs than might be lost or whether it could do irreparable damage to a critical estuary on the west coast? It's only common sense to do a cost-benefit analysis that covers ALL factors. The salmon support an industry as well, one that has been suffering because of the damage done to salmon habitat in the last century. Many are working hard to restore these runs so that they will once more be abundant. The protection of salmon and restoration of their ecosystems and management of commercial fisheries provides private-sector jobs for thousands and thousands of people. Many state and federal jobs are also involved. Salmon are keystone species in this ecoregion--they influence the entire food web and the ecosystems they live in and their loss has serious consequences. Their life history involves spending one to several years in the ocean and then dying after spawning in all accessible streams on the west coast, even up to a thousand miles inland. Through this process, they deliver massive amounts of ocean-derived nutrients--nitrogen and phosphorous (10-50 lbs each) all the way into the headwaters of watersheds. The list of species that feed directly on their carcasses is extensive, from aquatic insects to songbirds to bears to the juvenile salmon already rearing in the stream and the bald eagles that bring birders to view them, to the zooplankton in lakes that feed the fish that people like to fish for with their kids, to the benthic algae, fungi and bacteria that absorb the dissolved nutrients, and all the way down back to the algae and plankton in the estuary that feed shellfish and other animals. The larger animals drag the carcasses (and thus the nutrients) into adjacent riparian ecosystems, which are well-known for supporting extremely high biodiversity of plants and animals, including providing habitat for Neotropical migrants. The vegetation shades and cools the streams that support native fish communities already stressed by warmer water temperatures that result from streamside logging, development, and other disturbance. The riparian vegetation provides more nutrients to the stream in the form of leaf litter, small wood and terrestrial insects fed upon by trout. This forms a food base for the aquatic insects eaten by the juvenile salmon while they rear in the stream for a year or two before migrating to sea. The riparian trees that fall into the stream interact with the local geology and hydrology to form the pools that are critical for juvenile salmon survival during the high flows of winter and the warm temperatures and low flows of summer and for those adult salmon that migrate upstream many months before spawning, needing deep coldwater pools to oversummer in if they are to spawn in the fall. The logs act as storage points for the gravel and cobble transported through the streams at high flows, important for overall morphology of the stream as well as habitat for aquatic species and the very spawning gravels needed by the salmon to reproduce. Estuaries are some of the most productive habitats on the west coast. This is where the juvenile salmon can boost their size before migrating out to sea, which vastly increases their chances of survival into adulthood to spawn several years later. This is where the millions of waders and shorebirds feed during their annual migrations to and from their Arctic nesting habitats. This is where wetland vegetation provides nesting habitat for waterfowl. Salmon and shellfish are so incredibly important to the regional economy, as is the tourist industry and recreation. They provide jobs that aren't readily apparent to those unfamiliar with conducting such cost-benefit analyses. Things are never so black and white as you seem to think. Look at the Gulf of Mexico and all the people whose livelihoods were ruined by the oil spill, the hundreds of dolphins dying, the incredible expense of the cleanup. All of the risks need to be weighed, which is why we have laws regulating water quality, air quality, forest management, hydroelectric development, commercial fisheries, etc. Just some things to think about from a person whose private industry job depends on salmon survival in one way or another.

So you want no trains? WoW I guess you want eynhvtrieg built and moved overseas because guess what? Nearly eynhvtrieg moves by rail! A prosperous society means busy rail freight lines. If you don't like trains do not move by the tracks! If you want a prosperous society, applaud busy freight lines! They mean jobs and a good economy! The video of the power plants is mostly steam, the normal person doesn't know the difference between steam and smoke in a picture or video perhaps you do not either? The video of the coal train is the most dust I have ever seen, and that is after watching coal trains my whole life! You probably couldn't take pictures of a coal train rolling thru Bellingham rite now to use in your video because; there likely was NO coal dust! Cleaner Western US Coal means a Cleaner Environment! You can try every angle you want to somehow discredit that. The fact that cannot ever change is if you burn cleaner coal, than environment will be cleaner! Build the Ports!Build the Ports!Build the Ports!

Job creation per se is not the issue, valuable as it is; the issue is public health. Apropos of "job creation" one should note that the proposed radical changes to the hydrology of Coos Bay are likely to cause job losses to counterbalance the jobs created. We do not know whether the balance will be a positive or a negative economic change; not least because companies attempting to manipulate communities normally lie about the economic benefits to the target community. Ample evidence exists nationally and internationally describing the harm caused by coal in its various manifestations, starting with the "occupational" diseases, physical injuries and deaths caused to miners as a by product of mining coal, ending with the widespread diseases resulting from air and water pollution affecting communities enveloped in the solid, liquid and gaseous by products of coal combustion. Yes, coal dust has been proven to cause lung damage, so communities being contaminated with wind blown dust from passing coal trains will be harmed unless we are able to enforce the rule that coal must be transported in sealed containers. Good luck trying to get the rule created and enforced! Local communities need to have the legal power to control how their community is exploited by business; there is no logical reason why a "foreign" business should be able to dictate to any local community

Coos bay needs the jobs more than it needs a clean environment.

At some point the air and water have to be saved before it's too late, and the earth's resources and ecoystems must never again be polluted and raped. Otherwise the sorry, immoral overpopulated human race won't be breathing, much less eating.

You don't s*** where you eat. Jobs are always the excuse given pollute, develop, destroy and devolve areas where somebody thinks they can make a profit. Your priorities are twisted.

Hmmm...I didn't realise you could eat natural gas...

People do have to eat, and hold jobs. However, the choice is between being greedy leading to a fished-out ocean and polluted landscapes, or being sensible, leading to healthy fisheries and healthy air to breathe.

Of course people need to eat. But there's no shortage of jobs in the energy industry. There are plenty of jobs to be created with clean energies but the coal barons don't want the competition and would like a monopoly. Can you find out how much coal industries spent in lobbying to Congress last year? They seek to impede the development and integration of new cleaner technologies. And they use the media to exploit us, to make us believe that nuclear energy is dangerous while the figures on how many deaths the use of coal causes is never brought into the limelight. And these companies are not so poor that they can't afford to dump the coal ash responsibly; they are just to greedy to do so. The only way to make that happen is through utilitarian measures by making the punishment for irresponsible dumping greater than the benefits (profits) they get from dumping with disregard to the harm of others. They would rather spend their money flirting with Congress because its a million or two cheaper than doing the right thing. We need tougher laws. And you wouldn't need to earn so much if it weren't for the high cost of energy, which can ultimately be reduced by the expansion of alternatives to coal. Don't forget how much physical disease and illness is linked to coal ash dumping, let alone what miners endure; the facts are astonishing. Don't you think that is a large component of the high cost of healthcare? And why can't they use a port that already exists? All the other industries do. There has to be one on the west coast, I'm sure of it.

Short term speaking yes, "People need to eat" But what about the quality of what you eat? More than that, What about the longevity of your source of food? Will it help to have coal but no salmon or sea life? Should we create dead zones to feed our children or can we look further ahead than that and realize longterm irreversible damage coal pollution creates. We as a people are smarter than dirty coal and I have faith that cleaner energy is possible.

Coos Bay is already heavily polluted by the military, and there is a "blue haze or fog" in the air most of the time containing who knows what chemicals. They certainly don't need any more pollution of any kind.

Job creation need not be synonymous with environmental degradation and exploitation. We need a big-picture scenario. I'm guessing Alexander has no kids, because what is being left to them, and to the non-human inhabitants of the planet because of greed -- this is not subsistence coal mining here -- is pretty much a destroyed planet. There is enough to eat and enough to share the world over. The few people at the top, those who run the coal industry among them, are the ones unwilling to share. That's where our focus should be, not on some myth that the only worthwhile and well-paying jobs are those that will ultimately destroy us.

We must make every effort to prevent big oil and coal from GOVERNING this country through lobbying and payoff activities. They have the power and influence to do just that.

It seems that there are always going to be those who will fight job creation to the bitter end. Natural gas should be used over coal. That is just common sense but at some point you have to realize that people need to eat.

The cry for more jobs is a favorite cry of antienvironmentalists. We must learn to live within the carrying capacity of the earth and continuing to mine coal is not supporting the environment. Jobs must come to us responsibly.

You say people have to eat-so eat coal! There are ways to work and eat that do not pollute the environment and turn a nice town into an industrial toxic hell-hole.

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