Saying "No" to Coal Trains in Pierce County: A Personal Report on Progress

Sarah Morken
SSA Marine plans to build a port terminal along the Straight of Georgia in Washington State to receive coal transported from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming for transshipment on to Asia. This coal would travel by train through Sumner, Puyallup, and Tacoma. Worried by the potential for damage to our environment and our health a group of Pierce County residents met on Jan. 24, 2013 to start organizing to fight the coal trains. We discussed plans to prevent  the construction of the Gateway Pacific Coal Export Terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. We made a list of potential allies, formed work committees, touched on future events and enjoyed Trackside Pizza. The noise of the passing trains occasionally drowned out our voices.

The meeting was called by Chris Chisholm and myself. Chris is a founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp and Wolf College, an outdoor education and wilderness adventure program he runs with his wife Kim out of their home office located on Blue Skye Farm in Puyallup. I met Chris on the Facebook group he started  called "No Coal Trains through Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner."  The group now has 132 members sharing articles, discussing local and global impacts of coal, and rallying for events.  The Facebook group was used to help mobilize Pierce County folks to participate in the coal terminal environmental scoping process, which ended Jan. 21, 2012. The group also rallied activists to attend a recent Puyallup City Council meeting. We pushed for the council to officially request that the environmental impact statement study the specific impacts that the coal terminal would have on Puyallup. Currently up to three coal trains per day run through the town.  If the terminal were to be built, there would be a proposed nine additional full trains heading north and nine empty ones heading south daily. These mile and a half long trains would be holding up traffic, dividing the town, making noise, expelling diesel fumes, causing seismic damage, spewing coal dust, and possibly derailing.

Nineteen people attended the No Coal Trains Kick Off including students, workers, business owners and retired people. We were also joined by people from the following organizations: UFCW 21, Socialist Alternative,  Divine  Earth Gardening Project,  Industrial Workers of the World,  United for Peace of Pierce County, Fellowship of Reconciliation, The Pierce Progressive,  Climate Solutions, and FUSE Washington.

We kicked off the meeting by having everyone introduce themselves and make a brief statement about why they were against the coal trains, to help clarify the purpose of the group. Paraphrasing the various statements made by attendees, we expressed concern about the cumulative effects of the terminal, not just the effects of the trains in Pierce County.  We are opposed to the mining of coal in the Powder River Basin, the hazards involved with coal tankers, the eminent danger to the Cherry Point marine reserve in Bellingham, the climate change effects of burning all of that coal, acidifying the ocean, and the health hazards for the Chinese people living near coal fired power plants.

One person at the meeting expressed hope that the new governor Jay Inslee would prevent the coal terminal. He suggested that we make persistent effort to push the governor to stop the project.  During Inslee's inaugural address and gubernatorial press conference, he answered questions about the coal terminal.  He wants a "complete, consistent, reliable evaluation" of all impacts in the state, which would include the towns along the train routes. Inslee also mentioned global climate change and acidifying the ocean. He stated that we need to reduce carbon emissions, no matter where they originate.  Inslee did not say whether he would oppose or support the project, only that he wants a comprehensive study.

Others at the meeting mentioned the unfortunate divide between central labor councils and environmentalists on this issue. Terminal supporters emphasize the jobs that would be created (mostly temporary) and the profits from selling the "clean coal" to Asia. I will add my two cents here. From a socialist perspective,  we environmentalists must to fight for jobs too. We want green manufacturing jobs, green technology jobs, green public works jobs, public transit jobs, union jobs that would provide useful goods and services that we need, that would not destroy the environment for short term profit. We should start an immediate transition away from fossil fuels and towards green renewable energy like solar and wind. In order to facilitate that, all fossil fuel workers should be offered free retraining for jobs in non-polluting industry. Then, instead of selling coal to other countries, we could help them make the green transition as well.

So, how do we propose to fight big coal and prevent the construction of the terminal? We must build a popular movement. We cannot rely on the Army Corp of Engineers or the Governor to fight for us. During the meeting, we made a long list of known allies, potential allies and sources of information. Then we organized ourselves into three work committees:

  • A committee to discuss and research current coal train traffic in Pierce County. This group will be doing some train watching and coal dust sampling, which should be fun.
  • A committee to work on approaching local city councils to go on record against the coal terminal. The group decided that Tacoma City Council would be the first priority.
  • A committee for community outreach to enlist more supporters for the cause, distribute yard signs, possibly get people to sign petitions opposing the coal terminal.  Some of the people we plan to contact are residents and business owners near the tracks, health care professionals, and local Idle No More activists.
  • An administration committee to keep us organized and help with outreach via the internet.

We decided that we would give people time to get together with their committees before the whole group meets again. It will be several years before the deciding agencies make the yes or no decision about the coal terminal. So we have time to build a movement against it in Pierce County. In my opinion, we need to plan for the worst, that is, that the Army Corp of Engineers and the other deciding agencies will approve the project. In that case, we will need a really large popular movement to stop it.  I am encouraged by other groups fighting the fossil fuel industry all over the Americas, such as the XL Pipeline Blockaders. I am also concerned about the oil trains that recently began coming through Pierce County, and about the new oil refinery that is planned for the port of Tacoma. There is not currently a movement against that, but it is important to mention it. It is all part of the same fight, just focusing on different fuels.

Before adjourning the meeting, we touched on future events to plan for. The environmental scoping process  will start this summer for another planned coal terminal in Longview, WA and we will mobilize people for that. We also suggested that we all start thinking about what to name our group.

If you would like to know more about the Georgia Pacific Terminal, here are two excellent resources:

If you would like to get involved in fighting the coal trains in Pierce County, contact the author Sarah Morken at otrlsjm@gmail.com.