Vivian MacKay's backyard is Seattle's Sound.
At Large in Ballard: Counting the cars
By Peggy Sturdivant
Vivian MacKay loves her house on a cul-de-sac above the Burlington Northern train tracks. She moved there from Wallingford because she wanted to have a view of the Puget Sound. She’s now lived there for 24 years and every spring she scrubs her white deck. A few years ago she couldn’t seem to get it as clean; she attributed it to getting older. Then she noticed the coal trains that began running to Canada 4-5 years ago.
The more she reads and hears about additional trains that might transport coal from Wyoming and Montana to shipping ports in the Northwest to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal off Bellingham the more concerned she becomes. In location she qualifies as a “NIMBY,” which refers to someone against something mostly because it affects them personally, as in Not In My Backyard. However as a sea kayaker and birder MacKay is even more concerned with our region’s “front yard:” Puget Sound and its ecosystem.
She has started logging coal trains and counting the cars of open coal when she sees them. There’s almost always one headed north to Canada about 10:15 a.m.; one of the average six per day. One-hundred twenty-one cars one train and 125 the next. “How long is a train with 120 cars?” she wonders. “Longer than a mile?” For now they mostly run at night but she’s a sound sleeper.
The mining, use, and export of coal is a volatile subject in the United States. Debate includes whether regulations on particulate emissions make using coal too expensive in the U.S. and “forces” the coal industry to export more to countries with demand. Communities like Ferndale need more jobs and U.S. companies want revenue from exports. But Bill Ritchie, a retired coal mine manager was quoted back in April 2012 in Montana’s The Missoulian, “There’s no such thing as clean coal, and shipping it abroad doesn’t clean up the problem.”
Some mines are safer than others but no one seems to refute that mining is a dangerous industry, high risk to miners and trailing longer-term collateral damage across counties, states and continents in the form of byproducts and additional hazards. Transporting a combustible is risky because of possible fires, plus the possibility of derailments. Then there’s the issue of emissions during shipping, the poor air quality in Beijing and the reality that pollution from coal-fired electrical plants can travel back across the Pacific Ocean in 5-10 days, at measurable levels.
“I cannot complain about the rail tracks,” MacKay said, looking down at what were orchards when the tracks were laid in the late 1800s. “I knew about them when I bought the house. However I can take issue with the coal trains.” The edge of her yard is Burlington Northern property. From her deck she can see the Olympics, sailboat races, sunsets and boats leaving and entering the Ship Canal to the Locks. As a sea kayaker who paddled from Olympia to Canada she’s familiar with railroad tracks that sit even closer to the Sound. She has seen the slides that sometimes derail trains, so far not one with 125 open cars of coal.
I ran my finger across her railing. It’s not dirt on her deck; it’s greasy soot. Her neighbors are Ed and Dorothy Jacobsen, both in their 90s. Ed teases MacKay about her opposition to the coal trains. “What’s wrong with coal anyway,” he asks. “That’s how we all heated our houses.”
We can’t change the past but perhaps we can still make changes for the future. The rail lines are not only being used to transport coal from Montana but also the oil that is coming from the ground in North Dakota. The oil trains are less obvious, already running and even more deadly.
The current coal trains to Canada carry about 5 million tons per year. If the Gateway Pacific Terminal project is approved their goal is to ship an additional 48 million tons of coal per year to send overseas. This could mean 13 more coal trains per day. These would be on the same rail lines targeted to transport crude oil; one hopes in stronger tankers than those that exploded upon impact with the town in Canada last summer or the derailment in Virginia last month.
“They’re sure to be approved,” a realtor in an Open House said about the additional coal trains when I was asking him about houses for sale in clusters above the Burlington Northern tracks.
I hope he’s wrong. Not because Vivian MacKay is worried about her deck or even the potential drop in real estate values (which she doubts will be reflected by a drop in her property taxes). I hope the realtor that day in a random Open House is wrong because of ocean acidification, the air quality in China, and the carbon emissions at every stage of the process. Most of all I hope that we stop mining and using coal because on Tuesday, May 13th, the day after I stood on Vivian MacKay’s deck two coal miners died in West Virginia and 301 in Turkey. Those damages can never be scrubbed away.
Contact Peggy firstname.lastname@example.org.