Photo by Jerry Gay
Liz Talley, a local resident, opposes the proposed coal export near Bellingham, as it would bring upwards of 20 extra trains full of coal every day.

Taking a stance on coal

As election season closes in, ads circulate the television and people with petitions go around town, there is one question that is beginning to grow in the minds of Ballardites:

Does Ballard want coal?

Or, rather, does Ballard want extra coal trains to pass through it as they travel up to Bellingham to be shipped off to China?

It’s a question that is gaining immediacy as SSA Marine and Burlington Northern Sante Fe push forward to get a proposed coal export terminal established at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham. The new line would result in 150 million tons of coal being transported through the Pacific Northwest, and through Ballard, on its way from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, the largest coal-producing region in the United States. Currently, only 5 million tons of coal are shipped through the Northwest annually.

Coal companies have become increasingly interested in exporting coal to the energy hungry China as business has long been declining back in the United States, where environmental concerns and alternative energy sources have stymied profits.

Nearly 20 more coal trains would be passing through every day, measuring about a mile-and-a-half long with about 120 cars, and traveling at an average speed of 35 miles per hour. They would be passing through Sodo, the Olympic Sculpture Park, up Interbay, across the Ship Canal by Ballard Locks and past Golden Gardens and beyond. Estimates say that it would stop traffic for an extra two hours a day.

Furthermore, the trains would be passing by some of Ballard’s most treasured parks, something that 36th District candidate Noel Frame is not happy about.

“This issue is personal for me because these coal trains pass near Discovery Park, the Ballard Locks, Carkeek Park and other treasures of our district,” Fame said in a press release. “Like so many parents, I enjoy taking my family to Golden Gardens and can’t stand the thought of dirty trains covering our beach and filling the air with coal dust.”

Local resident and coal port protestor Liz Talley, who can see the coal trains from her house in North Beach, is also fired up about the proposal.

“It’s a vibrant area and this brings in a really dirty product to our community that’s bad for our environment, bad for walkers, bicyclists, anyone in our community,” she said. “We don’t want to make a dirtier city here.”

That’s not to say she isn’t against train transportation or business or creating jobs. Just the opposite. She said that whenever she sees trains going toward Boeing or the port or Weyerhauser, she gets excited. And as a former member and chair of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, she is all about economic viability.

“I’m fine with train transportation, that’s the other part of that. It’s a great, inexpensive way to transport goods and services … (but) coal shouldn’t be one of the products,” she said. “And certainly having Washington being one of the biggest exporters (of coal) in the United States, is a hundred percent against what this state is about.”

Ballardites may have met Talley. She has been taking her petition clipboard every with her -- the grocery store, the bank -- and spreading the word about the incoming issue. She also helped moderate a forum to educate residents about coal at the Our Redeemers Lutheran Church last July, which attracted about 80 people, she said. Another meeting last year, hosted by the Sierra Club, was packed with 200 people.

Talley is also trying to get Ballard businesses on board to voice their opposition to the coal trains. So far she said she has had a positive reaction from owners, though she has just started talking and hasn’t quite set anything in stone. The Matador and the Great Harvest Bakery have confirmed their opposition.

As for the reactions of everyone Talley has talked to, she said it was amazingly universal.

“I’ve talked to so many different people about it, and I’ve yet to find someone not agree with me after we’ve talked about the subject. A big variety of people. They all agree, they just didn’t know about it (before).”

As time goes on and more information about the proposed coal terminal spreads, more and more people, community organizations, activists, businesses and politicians begin to take stance on the issue. And usually the stance is in opposition.

Last year the City Council unanimously passed a resolution stating their unified opposition. In a recent interview with the Stranger, Mayor Mike McGinn too called for more action and voice.

“I believe the Port needs to join the city in trying to prevent the environmental, health, and economic harms that will be caused by those coal trains, and I hope that every one of our legislators will join the city and the council on this … It’s time,” McGinn told the Stranger.

But opposition is not only found in Seattle. It can be found nearly all over the state, including San Juan Islands and especially Whatcom County, where the terminal will be located

Corporations supporting the decision have gone on the offensive with a swarm of TV ads purporting the terminal would be a major jobs provider.

Liz Talley, who finds the commercial misleading, disagrees.

“I don’t think we’re talking about very many jobs, but we are talking about a lot of money, taxpayer money.”

Because tracks will have to be repaired and improved to accommodate the extra rail traffic -- all 150 million tons of it -- taxpayers will have to carry the bulk of the cost. In a time when the state is in a perpetual budget crisis, opponents have cited the negative impact this could have.

“Super simple how I see it,” Talley said. “The coal companies will profit, the SSA Marine will profit, and that’s it,” she said. “Nobody else will benefit.”

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