Stop That Train: Foil the Coal Export Plan

Coal. The sleek seductress and poison pill. Will humans leave her sleeping or destroy our life support system to fill our addiction?

The struggle to halt coal exploitation is happening on many fronts, and one important nexus is the battle in the Pacific Northwest to stop “The Coal Trains” — a variety of proposals to move unfathomable amounts of coal by train from Montana’s Powder River Basin to Pacific ports so it can be shipped to China. Every leg of this proposal is an unacceptable wound to Mother Earth: from the despicable strip mining in Montana; to the 18 or more daily mile-long trains trailing coal dust through communities in three or more states; to proposed construction of new ports, like one near Bellingham WA in a sensitive herring and salmon habitat; to a giant increase in large ships and the likelihood of an oil spill in the precious Puget Sound (home of the Orca whales) or other waterways; to the shipping of national natural resources all the way across the Pacific to be burned in dirty coal plants in China that put unacceptable levels of CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

There is so much money to be made that numerous corporations are salivating to get coal trains moving. There at least 6 sites from Coos Bay, Oregon to Canada, including sites along the Columbia River, the Olympic Peninsula and Cherry Point near Bellingham that are under consideration for coal export terminals. The “developers” include the perennially evil Peabody Coal (that hauled away John Prine’s “Paradise”), SSA Marine (who called in the police that shot at Oakland port protesters) and Goldman Sachs. They want to capitalize on China’s interest in cheap coal and the desire of the coal industry to open new markets as natural gas fracking floods the US energy market with artificially cheap gas which is cutting domestic coal consumption. So much for “national energy self sufficiency” arguments.

Its up to regular people in target communities to oppose these devastating energy projects. Fortunately Bellingham, the site of the largest proposed port, is not an easy push over. The public hearings about the Environmental Impact Statements have been packed with articulate citizens pointing out the numerous health, environmental and economic threats of this project. Bellingham also collected double the required signatures to put a “coal transport ban and Community Bill of Rights” initiative on the ballot. It was later blocked by a court order and the local city council. Nonetheless, the campaign galvanized local resistance and underscored the public desire to empower local autonomous decision making over state or federal bureaucracies.

The Bellingham 12 are a group of activists facing legal charges for blocking train tracks to bring attention to the Coal Train as part of Occupy’s West Coast day of action on Dec. 12, 2011. “The Bellingham 12 are working hard to fight our charges in court on the basis of the necessity defense to prevent a greater evil”, explained Andy Ingram, one of the twelve activists. “It’s imperative that we as a community here in the Northwest and across the world try and create a culture where direct action and confrontation of wanton industrial development is socially acceptable and encouraged, so that we have the slightest chance of preserving the health and integrity of the planet as we’ve known it up until now.”

Larry Hildes is an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild in Bellingham who is representing the Bellingham 12. He has also represented front-line coal activists in Montana and Tennessee. “Coal is an evil any place where it’s produced, it has caused suffering… It is the mining, transportation and burning of coal that is the single easiest attackable major cause of climate change. It is one of the most pervasive examples of putting profit ahead of the earth, putting profit ahead of people. They come up with more and more destructive means to pull it out, and the whole process is just flat wrong. It is wonderful that people are standing up against it, putting their bodies on the line all over the world to say no to it. It makes me really, really hopeful, the fact that there are people fighting this in West Virginia, Montana and Wyoming, here in Washington and Oregon, Australia, in China — all of the places where coal is inflicting human and environmental destruction, people are fighting it and are fighting it hard.”

There has also been resistance from the Native Tribal communities, a strong political force in the Pacific Northwest. “We have to say ‘no’ to the coal terminal project,” said Cliff Cultee, Chairman of the Lummi Nation. “It is our Xw’ xalh Xechnging (sacred duty) to preserve and protect all of Xwe’chi’eXen (Cherry Point).” Cherry Point is the location of a 3,500-year-old village site and is “full of sacred sites and burial grounds”. The proposed development is just north of the Lummi reservation and could gravely affect the fishing and gathering rights of numerous tribes. The call to stop the Coal Train was heard at a recent gathering in Seattle in support of “Idle No More” (a growing and exciting movement coming out of indigenous peoples in Canada).

“The fact that people have done civil disobedience on both sides of the border, both ends of the supply line is fabulous. There are people organizing to stop this everywhere. In every town along the route there are people in large numbers organizing. … Helena is mobilized, Bozeman is mobilized, Spokane, every place all along the rail route there is major opposition to this thing, it is enormously hopeful.” says Larry Hildes. “I’ve never seen an environmental movement like this, on this scale… this one is very large, and very broad and yet very radical. That’s fantastic. Which is what we need, that is how we are going to stop this.”