The Seattle City Council went on record yesterday, officially opposing the transportation of coal through city limits by unanimously passing Resolution 31379 during the afternoon


Seattle City Council Votes Unanimously (and Symbolically) Against Transport of Coal

The Seattle City Council went on record yesterday, officially opposing the transportation of coal through city limits by unanimously passing Resolution 31379 during the afternoon council meeting. Symbolic but firm, the wording of the resolution highlights "the negative impacts on the climate as well as regional impacts on human health and rail and freight traffic from the significant increase in coal trains that would run through Seattle," according to a press release issued mere moments after the vote.

The resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Mike O'Brien, stands in reaction to the four coal export ports currently under permit review in our region. Estimates indicate these four proposed coal-moving operations - which would largely service China with coal from Montana-- could increase the amount of coal the US exports by 150 million tons each year, and in theory dramatically increase the number of coal-carrying trains chugging through the Seattle area.

Locally, coal transported to the proposed Gateway Terminal at Cherry Point in Bellingham - the main reason for the anti-coal resolution - could substantially increase the number of coal-moving trains passing through the city, from one to nine each day. Heightening concerns even further are proposed export terminals in Longview, Wash., and Coos Bay, Oregon.

Though, as with plenty of the things the city council does, the resolution is largely symbolic, O'Brien says it was still an important message to send, and precedent to set.

"We take all the work we do, including resolutions, very seriously," O'Brien tells Seattle Weekly, saying the resolutions sets policy direction for the city along with carrying a component of symbolism. O'Brien also notes that while Seattle technically has little to no control over the railroads and what gets shipped through the city, issues like air quality, land use and traffic impacts may provide avenues for the city to intervene.

"Seattle has been a leader for a number of years on climate change issues," says O'Brien. "It's simply unacceptable for us to turn our back [on this issue]."

Along with worries about climate change, O'Brien cites health concerns for those living and working near the path of coal-carrying trains as one of the main impetuses for this action, noting the negative impacts of coal dust floating in the air that people breathe.

"I think concern is extremely high," O'Brien says about the potential implications of nine times as many coal-carrying trains traveling through Seattle each day and the impact that could have on the health of people as well as the environmental health of this region.

Proposed site of SSA Marine's Gateway Pacific Terminal in Bellingham

According to KOMO Joe Ritzman of Seattle-based SSA Marine, the company proposing the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in Bellingham that's at the root of all this, spoke against the resolution during the afternoon council meeting. Though his company failed to reply to a request from Seattle Weekly seeking comment, Ritzman reportedly told the council the resolution presupposes the outcome of the environmental reviews that are currently under way.

Suann Lundsberg, a spokesperson for BNSF Railway Company, questions the message sent by the City Council's anti-coal resolution.

"Interstate commerce is governed by federal law and the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and has protected the ability of cities such as Seattle to become significant players in national and international trade," says Lundsberg via email. "While the resolution cannot have the force of law, we believe it is vital to all of the current and potential future trade jobs in the Seattle region that the city continue to signal it is a strong supporter of national and international commerce."

As was noted Tuesday in an official press release from the city, earlier this month Seattle joined with others throughout the region calling for what's known as a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (or EIS) to identify the collective impacts of the four proposed terminals in the Northwest. O'Brien says an EIS, by looking the implications of vastly increased coal exportation cumulatively, will offer a much clearer picture of the potential risks to Seattle and the region.

The eight sections of the newly-passed resolution are as follows:

Section 1. The City of Seattle opposes the establishment of coal export terminals in Washington State and supports economic growth that does not jeopardize Washington State's commitment to fight the serious impacts of climate change.

Section 2. The City of Seattle intends to address any impacts to public health, safety, property, and surface and groundwater caused by the transport of coal through Seattle by actively enforcing generally applicable local public health, safety, building, electrical, nuisance, and fire codes and by actively enforcing applicable federal environmental statutes delegated to The City of Seattle.

Section 3. The City of Seattle will request that the railroad make public any plans for new or expanded rail facilities or significant rail traffic volume increases within Seattle city limits.

Section 4. The City of Seattle will request that the railroad provide representatives to meet periodically with local citizen groups and local government officials from Seattle to seek mutually acceptable ways to address local concerns.

Section 5. The City of Seattle will request that the railroad mitigate any public safety hazards created by the transport of coal through Seattle.

Section 6. The City of Seattle will request that the railroad monitor the loading of coal at the mines and at any transfer points as part of the contract(s) with the coal companies to assure best loading practices and to reduce the amount of coal and coal dust coming out of rail cars in route.

Section 7. For any coal loading facilities located within Seattle, The City of Seattle will:

a) require all locally applicable permits and approvals be obtained for the operation of such a facility,

b) fully enforce public nuisance and municipal land use restrictions,

c) require any piles of coal stored on the property to be fully covered, and

d) require that the facility use a covered loading process to reduce health and safety impacts.

Section 8. The City of Seattle will request that the railroad draft road improvement plans for intersections that would be impacted by rail traffic increases, and require the railroad to cover the cost of those upgrades as part of the mitigation for increase in rail traffic.

As the city's press release notes, Seattle now becomes the seventh city in Washington to officially voice concerns about the proposed expansion of coal exports, including Bainbridge Island, Camas, Edmonds, Marysville, Stevenson and Washougal.

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