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Who likes coal dust? Pretty much nobody

(Editor's Note: This is the third blog in an ongoing series about proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Upcoming blogs will examine the potential impact coal export terminals could have on the region's health and environment.)

Portland General Electric—a utility that operates power plants and supplies about half of Oregon’s electricity—thinks a coal export terminal proposed for construction at Port of St. Helens would generate too much pollution.

Um, can someone get the devil on the horn and check to see if hell officially froze over?

When a utility that operates a power plant says coal export generates too much air pollution, then you know something is seriously amiss.

Recently, PGE publicly announced its opposition to the construction of a coal export terminal by Kinder Morgan at Port of St. Helens in Oregon. It just so happens that PGE has a natural gas-fired power plant on the 850 acres of land the utility leases from the port. Coal dust pollution from the proposed export terminal, PGE says, would interfere with the air intake system at its power plant.

Coal dust would not only interfere with the operation of PGE’s power plant. The harmful health effects of coal dust blowing into communities from enormous, open-air coal piles at export terminals are well documented. Coal dust has been shown to cause bronchitis, emphysema and tumor growth in animals. It can also pollute soil, water and plants. The threats from coal dust are just one reason that Earthjustice is fighting for a thorough environmental review of all coal terminals proposed for the Pacific Northwest.

How can we be sure that wind-driven coal dust at the proposed shipping terminals will pollute nearby communities? Well, let’s take a look at what is happening at existing coal export terminals.

Recently, Sightline Daily’s Eric de Place reported on the pollution generated by coal export terminals in Australia, the world’s leading exporter of coal. In his piece, de Place quotes a report prepared by the coal transport industry describing the problem:

“Across Australia, dust from trains carrying coal and iron ore is a persistent problem. For residents next to a rail track in the Bowen Basin or Hunter Valley, it can on the worst days mean dust obscuring windows, dirtying washing and penetrating homes.”

Residents near Gladstone Port in southern Australia report having to wipe down all home surfaces at least once daily to remove coal dust that drifts over from a nearby coal export terminal.

Closer to home, the coal export facility in Seward, Alaska is notorious for polluting the nearby community with blowing coal dust. On bad days in Seward when coal dust lingers in a cloud over the town, visibility is reduced considerably. Aside from the coal dust, coal conveyor belts frequently drop chunks of coal into the bay. These images from Seward tell the story.

And the situation is the same at dirty, polluting coal export terminals at Point Roberts and Prince Rupert in British Columbia.

No matter how vehemently backers of the proposed coal export projects proclaim that advanced techniques and technology can suppress coal dust at the terminals, their arguments just don’t hold up to reality. These existing coal terminals serve as a harbinger for the Pacific Northwest and illuminate what is at stake—the health of the region’s citizens.

Tags:  Coal, coal exports