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Eastern Washington Legislative Conference 2015: Raising Prophetic voices

People of faith challenge cut coal, oil transport


Two Eastern Washington Legislative Conference workshops reported on progress related to coal and oil transport and export, and to shifting from coal burning to sustainable energy.

Jace Bylenga, Sierra Club Coal Free Avista Campaign

Jace Bylenga impressed by impact of testimony in hearings.

Click on link to watch the youtube video of this workshop on The Fig Tree Channel

Jace Bylenga, organizer for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, gave an update on efforts to stop coal transport and export terminals, and on work with Avista in Eastern Washington to reduce its reliance generating 20 percent of its power at a coal-fired plant in Montana.

Laura Ackerman, the Oil and Coal Campaign coordinator with the Lands Council in Spokane, said oil transport issues and expansion of refineries have been helped by successes on coal issues from grassroots advocacy and support of Northwest bishops.

Supporting these issues, said Jessie Dye of the statewide Earth Ministry/WA Interfaith Power and Light are examples of faith communities having “a strong sense of what’s right and a willingness to work for it.”

Jace said strong grassroots participation in Department of Ecology hearings on the environmental impact of coal transport and export mean that four of six terminals proposed six years ago have been dropped. 

In addition to turnout at hearings, hundreds of thousands of people sent in public comments.

The terminals at Longview and Cherry Point, which are still under consideration, would export about 100 million tons of coal.  If they were built, Jace said, about 50 more trains a day would be added to the 40 to 60 trains—five are coal trains—a day that go through Spokane and Spokane Valley.

The Power Past Coal Coalition of 100 groups continues to raise concerns about health and safety impacts of the rail traffic.

Already, Washington and Oregon have legislated closure of the last two coal-fired power plants in the region in the next few years.

Jessie said the Powder River Basin Coal Field in Montana and Wyoming is one of the world’s largest.  Because coal is “the dirtiest form of power generation,” activism in the state has stopped building new coal-fired plants and closed existing ones, she said.

“We show every negative environmental impact of coal transport and export, and require mitigation of each.  The expense of studies and mitigation will eventually turn off investors, making coal less profitable,” Jace said.  “Up to now, the coal industry has not been held accountable for mine safety, ground water contamination or air pollution.”

As a result of hearings, the Department of Ecology will consider climate change impacts and impacts of rail transport on communities, he said.

Support from local governments has added pressure.

Laura said concern about oil transport has risen with train explosions in Alberta, Ontario, West Virginia and California.

“If oil is developed, it will have more negative impact on climate change,” she said.

“With tracks so close to thousands of Eastern Washingtonians, we are not safe from oil train explosions,” she said.  “Oil trains from Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota and Tar Sands in Alberta come through Spokane and go along the Columbia Gorge.

“We don’t know for certain, but about four unit trains of 100 cars go through Spokane each day.  Each car holds about 30,000 gallons of oil.  Coal trains destabilize tracks, making oil train accidents more likely,” Laura added.

The oil is shipped to two refineries in Ferndale, two in Anacortes, one in Tacoma.  Three exporting facilities are proposed in Grays Harbor and the biggest for Vancouver, Wash.  Environmental impact statements on proposals for expansion will be out in the spring.  Faith community leaders are concerned the draft statements include major threats to God’s creation, Jessie said.

 Two bills before the legislature, the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act (HB1314) and Oil Transport Safety Now (HB1449), would add safety measures, such as inspections of tracks.

There are already nine freight train derailments a month in the state, Laura said.  In January, a grain train derailed in Cheney.

Many first responders across the state want to know what types of oil are coming when and where, Laura said.

There are also several bills before the legislature that address railroad workers’ safety. 

Interstate commerce laws say a state cannot stop products coming through, but can adopt spill prevention, public disclosure and financial disclosure measures, plus carriers of oil must demonstrate they have insurance to cover worst-case scenarios.

 Jace then told of the Sierra Club’s participation in Avista’s 20 year planning process to ensure that the true cost of coal is realized. Avista’s partial ownership of the Colstrip, Mont., coal-fired plant could be more expensive for its customers when environmental clean up of the site is considered.

“Burning coal is the largest contributor to global warming and mercury in fish,” he said.   “Carbon from coal burning dissolves in oceans, killing coral reefs and the fishing industry.  Heavy metals in ash left after burning coal contains contaminants.”

The Sierra Club has petitioned Avista to move from coal to clean energy.  Jace invited customers to let Avista know they want change.

“Coal-fired power is not cheap when its costs include cleaning up the pollution,” Jace said.

“We can replace coal with wind, solar and energy efficiency, which create family-wage jobs,” said Jace, aware of the coal industry’s political clout in funding politicians.

“We need to organize people so we can have greater influence than organized money,” he said.

Jessie urged people of faith to be stewards of earth’s ecosystems. 

“We want a better world for all God’s children,” she said.

For information, call 209-2395 for Jace, 209-2404 for Laura, or visit, and or

Copyright © March 2015 - The Fig Tree