Energy Blog: Comments on the Proposed Cherry Point Coal Terminal

By Andy Silber

These are the comments I’m sending to the Environmental Impact Statement Scoping process ( about the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point. I strongly believe that stopping coal exports through Washington State is our most important environmental struggle.  

I believe strongly that the scope of the EIS for the Cherry Point Coal Terminal needs to include all environmental and health impacts that will be the result of building this facility. The reason is simple; this permit process is the only mechanism for most of the social costs of this activity to be considered by the public:

If not you, who?

If not now, when?


Let me propose a Reductio ad absurdum. Let’s say the budget negotiations in DC break down, and someone in the Department of Energy has an idea that saves the federal government billions of dollars, plus we make billions of dollars by selling waste, nuclear waste. The plan is to stop treating nuclear waste at the Hanford Reservation and pour it into train cars, ship down the Columbia Gorge and then head north through Tacoma and Seattle to a state-of-the-art shipping terminal at Cherry Point. There the waste will be carefully loaded into ships. These ships will ply the waters of the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean, heading to North Korea. What the Koreans do with this plutonium-rich waste is not our concern, since they’re willing to pay good money for it. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll make a nuclear bomb, but is that more important than the dozens of good jobs created building the terminal? Then maybe they’ll sell this bomb to Iran, but that’s not our fault. This scenario assumes that the federal government has completely failed in its responsibilities to protect our health and welfare.  I think we can all agree that any proposal to build a shipping terminal for nuclear waste would consider what is being shipped, the risks and impacts along the rail and sea routes and how that material would be used when it finally arrived at its destination, especially if no one else was asking those questions in a public forum.

In the case of the coal terminal, there will be tons of toxic coal dust flying off the trains in populated areas. The impacted cities have no authority over those trains, only you do. If you don’t protect these people, then our democratic process has broken down.  Our federal government and the worldwide community of nations have failed to create a structure to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This forum is the only place for the climate impact of burning this coal to be asked and answered. If not you, no one; if not now, never.

The Cherry Point terminal will enable the burning of millions of tons of coal that currently isn’t being burnt. This will be the port’s most significant environmental impact. To have an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that doesn’t include this impact, would be like having a murder trial that discussed the defendant’s childhood and work life, but ignored the murder. Here are some questions and answers about why the climate impact must be considered in the EIS:

If this terminal isn’t built, might a terminal be built elsewhere and the coal burnt anyway? Maybe, but in Oregon, California and British Columbia there are people organized to fight coal exports for the same reason we’re fighting this one. Every coal export terminal should have to factor in the climate impact. Cherry Point is a good place to set that precedent.

Might the coal come from other countries anyway? Maybe, but since the US has the world’s largest coal reserves (22.6% of proven reserves), if we can keep that coal in the ground, it will have a significant impact on world prices of coal. Currently the US exports relatively little coal (we’re 4th behind Australia, Indonesia and Russia). By reducing supply, the price increases and demand shrinks. Already solar and wind are competitive with coal power. The last thing we want to do is reverse that trend.

Isn’t the EIS designed to look at local impacts? Then consider the local impacts of burning this coal in China or India. Consider how it will impact water resources as our winter snow becomes flooding rain. Consider how mercury and other pollution from faraway furnaces impacts our air quality. There are no other countries with large reserves of coal that aren’t significant exporters, so if we can keep ports off of the west coast of North America, this coal will likely stay in the ground and China and India will move even more quickly to alternatives like wind and solar.  China already has the world’s largest fleet of wind turbines. If this port isn’t built it is likely that the world’s consumption of coal will be lower.

Should the EIS consider the impact of this port in places outside of Washington State? For this question I’ll return to the Reductio ad absurdum: if an action in Washington State followed a predictable path to a nuclear bomb in North Korea that was sold to Iran and detonated in Tel Aviv, should we have stopped it? This port will raise sea levels worldwide, leading to dislocation and famine. We have responsibility for the impact of our actions, regardless of where they happen. I try and teach my son that he is responsible for his actions, regardless of what other people do. We can’t stop China from mining their coal to burn in their power plants. But we sure as hell can refuse to sell them more.