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Coal Train Update: Will Billionaires Buy Washington State?


October-November 2011

Cover Story

Coal Train Update: Will Billionaires Buy Washington State?

by Preston Schiller

To the formidable list of SSA-Carrix (one of the world’s largest shipping consortia), (Buffett) Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Goldman Sachs, and Peabody Energy, all working together to turn Bellingham into the capital of Appalachia West, we can now add the name of Bill Gates, Jr. While born too late to have been rocked in his cradle to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” or Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Bill has shown considerable interest in that most bountiful of North America’s energy and pollution resources, coal.

Buffett/Gates Convince Obama to Embrace Coal

A recent (Aug. 24, 2011) Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) article by George Black, “Coal on a Roll,” (see “For More Information” on page 4) brought to my attention by Bellingham webwatcher Shannon Maris and to a wider audience by Laurie J. Stein) documents the potential problems that Bill’s love-hate relation with coal poses for those wanting a more sane energy future. Buffett and Gates work together closely in several realms; investments, strategies, political influence and charity. This dyanamic duo donned coal miners’ helmets and gear last November to inspect the Black Thunder mine and the Powder River Basin (PRB) coalfields so important to their investments. Buffett Northern Santa Fe hauls 90 percent of PRB coal to far flung destinations across North America. Nuclear-talking Bill is heavily invested in coal-burning power generators. Their bountiful billions and high I.Q.s qualify them to be instant global energy experts and gain them access to private audiences about coal with President Obama. Evidently they made such a convincing argument for the potential of that oxymoronic concept, “clean coal,” that BHO got his cabinet and speechwriters working away at spinning that environmentally dirty sow’s ear into a miraculously-clean silk purse. Shortly after meeting with Gates and Buffett the Prez began speechifying about Clean Coal, awarded Buffett a Medal of Freedom, and Secretary of the Interior Salazar began opening more federal lands around the Powder River Basin to coal mining.

Coal News Update: (for more background information on this issue see previous articles in Whatcom Watch: April, August and September, 2011)

• As this article goes to press it appears that Whatcom County’s efforts to let SSA-Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) get away unpunished (“determination of non-signficance or DNS) for its illegal clearing of many acres for roads is being challenged by at least one state agency. According to a “Politics Blog” posting by John Stark (based on information provided by RE Sources Matt Krogh) in the Sept. 30 of The Bellingham Herald: ‘The Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation has appealed Whatcom County’s “mitigated determination of non-significance” issued on SSA Marine’s unauthorized road-clearing activity on the Seattle firm’s Cherry Point shipping terminal site. In a letter to county planning supervisor Tyler Schoeder, assistant state archaeologist Gretchen Kaehler asks the county to withdraw that determination, because a review of possible archaeological resources needs to be conducted at the site. “A DNS is not appropriate for this project as the unpermitted work took place with a National Register Eligible archaeological site … archaeological resources are protected under both federal and state laws and further permits, plans and reviews are required.”’

• In addition, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities filed a 60-day notice of intent on October 3 to sue Pacific International Terminals, Inc., based on Clean Water Act violations committed as part of SSA Marine’s unpermitted clearing of land and wetland modification at the Cherry Point site. This 60-day notice comes on the heels of criticism by wetland scientists at the Department of Ecology of the minimal mitigation requirements issued by Whatcom County’s Planning and Development Services for the retroactive clearing permits, and failure to impose the mandatory six-year permit moratorium.

“SSA Marine has repeatedly promised to meet or exceed health and environmental protections in developing the Cherry Point coal terminal. Yet the company’s illegal logging is part of a track record of violating environmental safeguards and calls into question whether we can trust this company in the future,” said Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources.

• The reaching out to other rail route communities likely to be adversely affected by the coal trains has been initiated and led by Bellingham’s Mayor Dan Pike. From our neighbor Mount Vernon to Seattle and beyond this effort has paid off considerably with important Skagit County agencies and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn weighing in and helping push the environmental review beyond the confines of the Cherry Point site (as SSA-GPT had hoped for its limited scope) to include considerations of serious environmental impacts up and down the line that could be caused by the SSA-GPT proposed project.

• An excellent appraisal of how far we have come in a few months of public awareness and activism on the coal terminal/trains issue is offered by RE Sources Director Bob Ferris in his Sept. 27 blogpost at http://blog.re-sources.org. Watch the same site for a report on the RE-sources organized September 20, 2011, meeting with State Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, along with information about further possible challenges to SSA-GPT should be posted in early-to-mid October at http://blog.re-sources.org Consult this site regularly for updates about this issue.

• Although the pace of activity on the part of SSA-GPT, other than illegal clearing, seems to be slowing, it is possible that they will rush to submit an application by the end of the year. Please keep following this issue closely and consult some of the for more information sources listed below for up-to-date information.

In the upcoming election please inform yourself on the various candidates’ coal issue stances and please vote for those candidates, especially for the key positions of Bellingham Mayor and Whatcom County Executive, who have demonstrated their leadership on this issue and their willingness to aggressively challenge the SSA-GPT proposal. §

For More Information

• RE Sources: http://blog.re-sources.org and re-sources.org

• Jean Melious, WWU Environmental Law Professor provides highly informative news and perspective on the SSA-GPT affair at: http://getwhatcomplanning.blogspot.com

• Cascadia Weekly’s Tim Johnson has been giving this issue a fair amount of thoughtful attention.

• Bellingham Herald’s Politics Blog; John Stark continues to cover the SSA-GPT story

• In a Sept. 18, 2011 Letter to the Editor of The Bellingham Herald, Laurie J. Stein urged persons to read “Coal on a Roll: Plundering America to Power the Asian Boom,” in the Fall 2011 issue of On Earth magazine, produced by the non-profit National Resources Defense Council at onearth.org

• Eric de Place, Sightline Institute: “Northwest Coal Exports: Some Common Auestions About Economics, Health, and Pollution.” September 2011; http://www.sightline.org/research/energy/coal/coal-export-faq A excellent and well-documented summary of the major coal issues and how they affect our region, the nation and the planet.


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