Should county weigh in on coal?

An opposition group of crabbers, fishermen, bird enthusiasts and environmental advocates have come together to oppose a potential coal export facility in Hoquiam.

The new anti-coal group called Citizens for a Clean Harbor has already done presentations in front of teachers, the Chehalis Basin Watershed Partnership and county health advocates with a full-fledged town hall meeting slated for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 30, at Elma High School. Future town hall meetings are also planned in Hoquiam and Aberdeen, but details must still be worked out.

On Thursday, the Grays Harbor County commissioners talked about the group and a request for the commissioners to consider getting involved by having the county’s Board of Health look into the potential health impacts of a coal facility on the Harbor.

RailAmerica is evaluating the possibility of constructing a $100 million coal storage and export facility at the Port of Grays Harbor Terminal 3 at Hoquiam. Port Commissioner Stan Pinnick said Thursday that no agreements had been signed and everything remains in a preliminary stage. Pinnick said he felt the project was many, many months away from a decision.

But Arnie Martin, who serves as president of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society, says he hopes to generate enough public opposition that the coal export idea will simply be dropped. Martin says the Grays Harbor Audubon Society has already voted to condemn any kind of coal facility at Terminal 3 and he is personally spearheading the Citizens for a Clean Harbor group.

“I know it’s going to take some convincing,” Martin said, noting the county’s 14.2 percent unemployment rate, which is the second highest in the state.

“The upside is 40 to 50 jobs and the downside is all of the rail congestion and the possibility of environmental damage,” Martin said. “The downside from the proposal is the building of a facility which has the potential to pollute the area with noise, unsightly equipment and piles of coal, and, if not scrupulously maintained and operated, with large quantities of coal dust, which contains known carcinogens. Does this seem like the highest and best use of an area next to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, a location that has been designated an area of Western hemispheric world importance to bird migration?”

Environmental Health Director Jeff Nelson said that the Citizens for a Clean Harbor has formally requested the county’s Board of Health conduct or participate in a comprehensive health assessment before the Port of Grays Harbor allows a coal export facility to go in.

“I think this is a topic we have to be very careful with because it is so volatile and it has the look and feel of having a lot of detrimental portions to it,” County Commissioner Terry Willis said Thursday. “We need to be careful as a county and as agencies of the county to make sure any information we provide is absolutely based on fact and we are not adding to the angst of the misinformation that might be out there.”

“It seems to me we have plenty of real-time information about other communities that have this, so you go look and see how much coal dust is on the track,” Commissioner Mike Wilson said. “It’s not as if this is something new.”

Commissioner Herb Welch said he was skeptical to receive just information from coal opponents rather than also “getting information from the people who transport coal. There’s an unbelievable difference in information. … I don’t want information that is based on emotion, but facts.”

“We want to make decisions based on the facts,” added Commissioner Willis. “Not make up a decision and adjust the facts to suit us.”

Nelson noted that the Environmental Protection Agency is doing an assessment of coal exports in the Northwest. The Associated Press reports that the EPA wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a thorough review of the impacts of exporting U.S. coal through Northwest ports, including facilities proposed at Bellingham, Longview, Grays Harbor and three in Oregon.

Dr. John Bausher, who is the county’s health officer, told the county commissioners that his family has been involved in the coal industry for generations. His father was a coal miner at Scranton, Penn., and developed “Black Lung Disease.” And he has uncles who were coal miners, who have since died from cancer.

Bausher said he has a conflicted mind, seeing the economic development behind coal, but also the potential detrimental health impacts behind it.

“I do have a concern about the dust and the particulate matter,” Bausher said. “I grew up with coal. I’ve been in a coal mine. … In the 1950s and 1960s, nothing lived in the local river, but now the rivers are clean because the communities have learned to co-exist.”

Bausher said that the county shouldn’t be spearheading any kind of health report, but leave it in the capable hands of the EPA.

“There’s data to be gained from other communities that have coal and can make a judgment on what the effects will be here,” Bausher said. “There are so many factors here that you can’t say this is a horrible thing, let’s not do it, or say it’s wonderful, put it in.”

A recent report card comparing Grays Harbor’s health to the rest of the state ranked the county dead last. But the one ray of light had to do with the physical environment, with its lack of smog and pollution, which ranked the Harbor the eighth best in the state. Bausher said that should be considered when the final decisions are made about the export facility.

“We have clean air and we need to make sure we don’t blow it,” he said.