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Love of outdoors inspires Sierra Club organizer to educate about coal trains

Appreciating being near nature and respecting the need to protect ecosystems, Crystal Gartner has worked for more than 11 years doing environmental education and advocacy in Spokane.

Her focus now is to organize the community to prevent a major increase in mile-long coal trains from spoiling the air quality, quality of life, safety and health of people in the region.

Crystal Gartner
Crystal Gartner, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign organizer

Hiking alone, with friends or taking people to introduce them to “the drama of the wild in all seasons,” she said she is “aware that creation is full of life.”

Crystal feels spiritually tied with creation, respecting that “we are part of everything, not above it.”  Along with her comfort in nature, she has a strong sense of seeking justice to protect it.

As associate organizing representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, she is building coalitions to inform people about health, environmental and infrastructure effects on urban and rural areas if coal trains rumble through Spokane from Montana and Wyoming to five proposed ports in Oregon and Washington.

“The Sierra Club opposes coal exports because mining, transporting and burning coal fouls our air, pollutes our water, sickens our children and destroys the environment,” Crystal said.

Recently, of 800 people at Spokane’s public hearing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the scope of their environmental impact statement, 700 opposed the increased train traffic through the Northwest that would result from exporting coal to Asia. 

Residents urged that all impacts and risks to families and the environment in Spokane County and along 1,500 miles from coal mines in the Powder River Basin to proposed ports on the Pacific Coast be considered related to the proposed Gateway Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham.

Crystal said Power Past Coalition, which had hoped 300 people would come in Spokane was amazed by the turnout.

“We started the effort here from nothing a year ago.  Now many people engaged in the campaign are aware that Spokane is the choke point for all rail traffic in the Northwest,” she said.

Those who have come to hearings to express opposition have worn red to be visible.

“Red symbolizes power.  It symbolizes, ‘stop’,” said Crystal.  “Proponents wore green.”

She also listened to a live stream of testimony at a Dec. 13 hearing in Seattle, where 95 percent of the 2,500 who came favored expanding the area that would be considered in the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Cherry Point terminal, which would be the largest coal export terminal in North America, she said.

“Wherever the ports may be located, every train would come through Spokane with coal and go back empty, spewing toxic diesel fumes, spreading coal dust and creating congestion,” Crystal said.  “If all five ports are built, 30 trains a day will come through full and 30 will return empty.  Cherry Point alone would account for 13.

“We already have about 70 trains carrying all kinds of commodities coming through Spokane—wheat, soybeans, lentils and other crops,” she said.

Crystal believes it’s important to act:  “Proponents have money, but we have people.  That’s real power.  We have only begun to demonstrate this with the overwhelming, unprecedented turnout of thousands at the hearings.”

Diverse people voiced opposition on Dec. 4 in Spokane:

• “People shared concerns based on their religious and faith perspectives. The faith community had a major role,” Crystal said

Jesse Dye of Earth Ministry in Seattle organized Spokane events for faith leaders so they would involve their congregations.

• Young people testified, worried about their lungs and climate change.  Several who live beside the tracks do not want to breathe the diesel fumes or coal dust. 

• A psychiatrist said noise from coal trains’ engines, whistles and rumbling on tracks would disturb people, especially those with mental illnesses.

• Others argued that more coal trains would kill jobs and discourage investment in Spokane, if they reduce air quality, affect the quality of life, increase health problems and impact safety.

• A city planner expressed concern about an increased risk of train derailments.  Coal dust accumulates between the ballast in the rails, undermining track structures, he said, and coal dust can sometimes cause fires. 

• A retired state trooper spoke of increased risk of fatal auto-train accidents with increased train traffic, particularly in rural areas and at road-level crossings.

“If a coal train derails near exposed areas of the aquifer, it could pollute our sole source of drinking water,” Crystal added.

In Sandpoint, the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeepers are on board.  Pasco is concerned that coal dust of trains passing through wine country will taint the grapes.

“Coal is a dirty, outdated, toxic fossil fuel.  It makes no sense to mine, transport and export it to Asia,” she said.

Combined, the heavy, one- to two-mile-long trains will affect families, tribes, cities, towns, local economies and the environment along the way.

“It’s unconscionable not to consider the impact on thousands living along the route,” she said. “We know that diesel emissions can cause serious health problems—lung disease, asthma, birth defects, cancer and heart attacks.

“Spokane is the site of Bloomsday and Hoopfest, which are about healthy lifestyles,” she added.  “Why would we not put the health of local children and families first.

“Coal is a boom-bust commodity.  The market is volatile,” Crystal said.  “It would not make sense to invest in such infrastructure when we can develop sustainable, clean energy jobs.  We need to keep our community healthy and safe for families and to attract tourism and new business.

“Plans to export 150 million tons of coal each year from our coasts would kill jobs in fisheries,” she said.

Crystal explained that coal cannot be covered because it’s combustible.  Some proponents say they would spray it with a surfactant, but the spray is ineffective against shifting coal during transport, and its use is optional.

Along with the Power Past Coal Coalition, the Sierra Club is a major organizer of grassroots opposition to coal exports, working with many people and groups in the community.

“We reached families by going door-to-door in neighborhoods near the tracks and having friendly face-to-face conversations.  Canvassing is uplifting, because people appreciate being informed so they can be involved,” she said.

Volunteers canvassed a Spokane Valley neighborhood; plus Chief Garry, East Central, Logan, Browne’s Addition and Peaceful Valley in Spokane, and neighborhoods in Cheney from the summer through November.

The Corps of Engineers will receive comments until Jan. 21, so Crystal urges everyone who lives along the train route to comment at

Having grown up in Germany where her American parents taught at Department of Defense schools, she attended the University of Maryland in Munich before coming to Spokane in 1993 to join her mother and other family.

She managed a custom picture framing business downtown for several years until seeing an ad for work to pursue her passion for environmental conservation with the Washington Environmental Council in 2001.  She went on to work as development director and wilderness campaign associate for other conservation groups, and as outreach associate seven years with Conservation Northwest, where she focused on the Columbia Highlands Wilderness Campaign.

To inspire public support to protect proposed wilderness areas in the Colville National Forest, she led and trained others to lead organized summer and winter hikes in the Kettle Range and other areas.

The wildlife and rugged beauty of Eastern Washington were a new experience for her, in contrast to the urban life she experienced in Europe.  Her lifelong appreciation of nature, animals, plants, weather and seasons makes conservation work in the Northwest fulfilling.

It’s important to value and be sympathetic to other living things and the way ecosystems work, she believes: “The earth is our home.  It is not right for humans to disrupt the ecological systems.” 

When Crystal sees damage to the the systems, she wants to protect them.  So she organizes people to stop the damage, empowering them to organize others.

For information, call 209-2395, email or visit

Copyright © January 2013 - The Fig Tree