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Canadian Oil Train Explosion Should Give Coal Train Developers Pause

[fa icon="calendar'] Jul 16, 2013 9:21:05 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

It took just three days after the Canadian oil train explosion for Keystone XL pipelinenaked coal supporters to shift the news from rail safety to use this tragedy to further their goal. Apparently, the practice of using disasters as promotion is still strong. PR writes itself: “Save lives, build the pipeline!”

On Wednesday, I woke to the Seattle Times headline “Canadian blast revives worries about transporting oil by rail” above a full page story picked up from Bloomberg News. The story was purportedly about unsafe rail tankers, but shifted direction in the very first sentence, blaming the explosion in part on the delay in pipelines such as the TransCanada Keystone XL.

Bloomberg is first and foremost a business news service, so the pro-business angle is understandable. But this story ran in on page 3 of the Seattle Times’ main business section, in the news analysis section called “Close Up.” It was a straight news report.

Isn’t it astonishing that within just three days of the explosion, mainstream press was already blaming the deaths on pipeline delays.

The pipeline delay thread almost threatens to overwhelm the issue of rail safety. The New York Times noted that the tankers were found to be unsafe 20 years ago. They were supposed to have been replaced. Fifty lives could have been saved. Another horrifying tragedy that was preventable had the rules been followed. It happens.

But what stopped me cold was that the New York Times claimed that the explosion came as such a “big surprise.”

And that’s the real point. It’s almost impossible to predict or prepare for the worst case when you’re dealing with a toxic substance. I’m reminded of the 1961 Colorado River disaster caused by flushing out gutters that had accumulated years of insecticides, releasing tons of toxins all at once. Rachel Carson eloquently describes what happened next in her seminal work Silent Spring:

“ …(on Sunday, January 15) dead fish appeared mysteriously in Town Lake in Austin and the Colorado River for a distance of about 5 miles below the Lake. None had been seen the day before. On Monday there were reports of dead fish 50 miles downstream. By this time it was clear that a wave of some poisonous substance was moving down in the river water. By January 21, fish were being killed 100 miles down stream, … and a week later, the chemicals were doing their lethal work 200 miles below Austin.”

When dealing with and especially transporting dangerous, toxic substances, there will always be unintended consequences. With all this press analysis of the oil “surprise,” I wonder why no-one is talking about worst case scenarios for the proposed West Coast coal trains.

Known consequences of coal trains have been much studied. We now have to accept the possibility of the previously unimaginable: a major coal spill into the Salish Sea.

There have already been sixteen coal train derailments this year.  One can now have to envision a spill so extreme that an entire train of 115 cars or more each carrying 115 tons of coal could fall into the Sea.

There is no protection from Federal agencies. As reported in Huffington Post last month, the Army Corps of Engineers withdrew from its planned environmental review of coal ports. Given the oil explosion in Canada, shouldn’t they reconsider? No agency regulates the toxins in raw coal, including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and bottom ash emissions. A major spill could coat the Sea with a black, toxic film that would kill life beneath it. Where is the EPA?

The most important lesson from the oil tank explosion is not the additional proof that oil tanks are unsafe or whether it’s safer to transport via oil train or pipeline. Both are potentially lethal. The real issue is that when it comes to dangerous, toxic material, the one thing you never thought could happen does happen. It’s one thing to accept those risks when shipping a critical fuel to Americans. The benefits outweigh the risks, at least for now. It’s quite another to accept that risk to ship fuel to Asia – especially when the resulting coal pollution blows right back on us.

Photo courtesy of theslowlane via Flickr CC.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 7,400 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 7,400+ companies from 135 industries in 96 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 257 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Army Corps of Engineers, coal train derailments, Colorado River, EPA, Rachel Carson, Uncategorized, Keystone XL Pipeline, rail safety, Salish Sea, TransCanada, West Coast coal Trains, Canadian Oil Train Explosion, Carol Pierson Holding

EPA Protects West Coast Ports Besieged by Coal

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 24, 2012 4:05:45 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

In a long-awaited move, the EPA has called in the Army Corps of Engineers to review plans for West Coast coal ports. Finally, alarmed environmentalists and frightened local residents are getting help from the Federal government.

CoalIn December, 2010, I first heard about a proposed coal port in Longview, Oregon and was so outraged that I wrote an article for CSRHub.com. It was so shocking, here, in the Pacific Northwest, a place that prides itself on clean energy leadership. Where just months later, amidst great celebration, Washington state announced it will close its last remaining coal plant.

The environmental arguments against the Longview coal terminal seem indisputable: the coal that would have been shipped from Wyoming and Montana was the lowest grade, a grade outlawed in the US because it is so toxic. The trains carrying the coal would go through the Columbia River Gorge and other environmentally sensitive areas, spreading adjacent land and communities with coal dust.

And when the coal finally got to China, the resulting clouds of black soot could have resulted in pollution so thick as to reduce visibility in West Coast communities, a “myth” that I witnessed several years ago in San Francisco.

That Longview port proposal was withdrawn in the face of consumer opposition and a state review. But as I just found out, a new plan was submitted in late 2011 that “dwarfs the size of the original.” The $600 million project would create a port that exports a staggering 44 million tons of coal per year, making it twice as big as the largest coal port on the West Coast, which is located in metro Vancouver.

The strange thing is that even moderate voices in the coal industry question the viability of new coal ports. David Gambrel, coal consultant with many years working in coal companies, cautioned developers in Coal Age to take a lesson from the past. In the 1980s, the Port of Los Angeles responded to the same frenzied level of Asian demand for coal, then from Japan and India. The port hosted a $150-$200 million consortium to build LATX for coal exports and in the early 90s opened a world-class facility. It exceeded environmental requirements. Even tough union problems were overcome.

But several years later, the demand from Asian markets failed to meet LATX’s minimum annual guarantee requirements and the project was shuttered.

The Port of Portland went through a similar saga, investing $25 million in its own export terminal only to find Asian markets to be unstable and unreliable.

And yet, here we are again. This time, coal prices are sky high and many more determined coal port developers are jumping in, including SAA Marine in Cherry Point Washington; the Longview facility which is co-owned by Ambre Energy of Australia and the US Arch Coal; Rail America’s coal terminal at Grays Harbor Washington; and three smaller ports in Oregon, including the Port of Morrow’s proposed development soon to be under review by the Corps of Army Engineers.

Even if Asian demand for coal does stay strong, there are many other uncertainties that make investments risky, including increased competition from Alaska and South America when the Panama Canal widening is complete in 2014, the arrival of larger New Panamax vessels which cut shipping costs but require deeper harbors, and the ability of railways to handle heavy loads and trains longer than 100 cars.

But the most frightening risk of all to the coal port developers is the environmentalists. As David Gambrel writes in Coal Age:

“Finding a site that meets all the physical requirements will be but a small part of the job. Global warming, climate change, and a host of other scare phrases will be used by people who now genuinely believe the Chinese will burn high sulfur coal and send their unclean stack emissions back to us. In many cases their fear is so great they will do everything in their power to stop any new development.”

How right Gambrel turns out to be. It’s those crazy residents and even crazier environmentalists devoted to stopping the coal port developments who pushed the EPA to pull in the Corps of Engineers. It’s amazing what a determined group of people can do, even in the face of the combined forces of coal, railway, and shipping industries. I sure hope they succeed.

Photo published under Creative Commons license. Courtesy of Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.


CSRHub has a Special Issue of Coal Involvement. The 51 companies on this list are involved in the coal industry either via coal mining, production of coal mining-related equipment, coal-based power production, or engineering services. Sources used: Coal Mining Engineer's ListVan Eck Global CoalPower Shares Global CoalSource Watch CarbonU.S. Energy Information Administration Coal ProducersYahoo! Coal.


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Army Corps of Engineers, coal ports, coal production, EPA, Uncategorized, Carol Pierson Holding, Pacific Northwest

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