Written by Emily Mullins
The Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ is saying "no" to new coal production. Taking a public stand to stop the impending pollution, the group voted nearly unanimously at its annual meeting in late April for a conference resolution opposing the proposed construction of coal export terminals and the transport of coal via trains that spew toxic dust throughout the region.
"There are a whole lot of reasons why construction of new coal export terminals is not a good plan," said the Rev. Meighan Pritchard, interim minister at Prospect Congregational UCC in Seattle and author of the resolution. "As an environmental proposal, it's a disaster. As a social justice issue, it's going to affect a lot of communities. It's an 'everybody' issue."
As the use of coal declines in the United States, coal producers are seeking new markets, such as countries like China, Pritchard said. Coal producers are looking for ways to ship coal mined in states like Wyoming and Montana overseas by transporting it across state lines via trains to coal export terminals on the Pacific Northwest coast. While three coal export terminal proposals have been withdrawn, there are three proposals remaining for construction of terminals in Washington and Oregon, which the Pacific Northwest Conference, Earth Ministry, and other faith-based and environmental organizations are trying to prevent.
One of the biggest problems caused by the coal export is the toxic dust that blows off the trains during transport. Because coal is flammable when in an enclosed space, it has to be shipped in open, uncovered train cars. With trains measuring 1-1.5 miles long, that is a lot of coal dust entering the atmosphere, which is known to increase rates of asthma, heart and lung disease, and other health issues for people living near the train tracks, Pritchard said.
"As they travel, literally tons of coal dust blows off the trains," she said. "And the dust that blows off is toxic and terrible to breathe."
The dust can also impact the waterways, affecting fishing, crabbing and shellfish industries, and also impacts tourism by impeding the shorelines, Pritchard adds. Another argument the Pacific Northwest Conference and other groups are making against the project is the effect on jobs and the economy. While some groups argue that the construction of coal export terminals would create jobs, Prichard says the jobs created would be temporary and would pale in comparison to the amount of jobs that would be lost.
"The several hundred jobs created in construction, railroads, and export terminals do not offset the tens of thousands of jobs at risk in the tourism, small business, farming, fishing and other sectors if the terminals are built," Pritchard said. "People try to pit jobs against the environment, like you have to choose one or the other. But it's a false argument. The way mining works these days, it's so mechanized that it provides way fewer jobs than it used to."
Other issues, like the fact that railroad tracks would need to be built over sacred Native American burial grounds, and that the trains could block the accessibility of first responders in the event of an emergency, just add to the list of negative outcomes, Pritchard said. Not to mention that the new terminals would increase coal production from 5 million tons per year to 150 million tons per year, which climate experts say would have irreversible effects on the environment.
"If we ship that much coal over there and it actually gets burned, we're cooked," Pritchard said.
The Pacific Northwest Conference isn't the only faith-based group fighting against coal production. Nearly 250 clergy and religious leaders from across Washington have signed Earth Ministry's letter opposing coal export, and numerous denominational executives and heads of religious organizations have signed a letter asking for environmental review of a terminal proposed in Oregon. At its annual meeting, the Conference also voted to endorse the General Synod resolution proposed by the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC calling for the denomination to divest from fossil fuels.
The completion of the Pacific Northwest Conference's resolution fell in the midst of Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's 50-day earth care campaign, which Pritchard says is "perfect synchronization." She hopes the conference's efforts inspire individuals and congregations to become educated about the issue of coal production and the impacts it has on their region and the world. She also hopes the conference serves as a bold public voice by taking a stand against the fossil fuel industry before it is too late.
"The Pacific Northwest conference wanted to come out publicly and just bear witness that we think this is a bad idea," Pritchard said. "It's a statement that we have talked about it, looked at it, and we can't see a reason to do it. We are urging individuals and congregations to get involved and educated about what the issue is, what the impact would be, and to stand up, fight, and take some action."
To count your efforts on the Mission 4/1 Earth tally board, report your earth care hours, trees planting and letters written, report in as often as you like here.