Gettin' My Hands Dirty (or Trying Not To)

Gettin' My Hands Dirty (or Trying Not To)

credit: Bill Purcell
credit: Bill Purcell

I must admit, my political activism is largely relegated to NPR news updates, voting in the local elections, and signing the occasional petition. I once went so far as to write a letter — from scratch — imploring my congresswoman to approve funding for a local social service agency. But when the issue of coal coming by train and barge from Wyoming through my beautiful Gorge and out to the northwest Washington coast came up last year, there was no way a letter or a signed petition was going to cut it. I had to do something.

Coal is a dirty, dirty business. I work with several clients in renewable energy markets, and I'm against the idea of pulling more coal from the ground. I'm particularly against the proposal for coal export terminals that would allow for the shipping of 150 million of tons of coal every year from public lands in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin to places like China (I'll have to save the issue of China's horrendous air pollution for another post).

The environmental and health impacts of coal extraction and transport are alarming. Just look at mining areas in West Virgina, Pennsylvania or Kentucky and it's very plain to see how devastating coal activity is. To even entertain the idea of having that replicated here, in our great Pacific Northwest, an area renowned for its pristine outdoors and progressive mentality, is simply unfathomable.

credit: Sustainable Business Oregon
credit: Sustainable Business Oregon

For the past year or so, all across our region thousands of people have attended public hearings where they have requested, often pleaded for, comprehensive, thorough environmental impact statements for the proposed coal export terminals and connected rail and barge traffic. When such a public hearing was held in Vancouver, WA, this past December, I decided it was time for me to add my body to the masses of coal export opponents.

I have never attended any sort of civil event like this before. I was nervous. What would I be expected to do? How would I react if I were to come face-to-face with a coal export proponent? What would I say if asked to express my stance on the issue?

As my friends and I arrived to the college campus where the hearing was held, we were told that there were so many people in attendance that organizers had opened a second auditorium for public comment. And because there was not enough time in the evening for everyone to give their comment publicly, we had the opportunity to give verbal testimonial one-on-one to people would record and submit our statements. This was far less intimidating option than getting up in front of hundreds of people to make a statement and this was the method in which each of us chose to give our testimony. Later we drifted between the two hearing rooms and listened to compelling and emotional testimony from numerous people, young, old, all creeds and colors, all united by a passion to literally stop this (coal) train in its tracks.

At some point early on, the opposition had claimed the color red to be the color of anti-coal. And proponents had chosen the color green. Red, I can understand. It's the color of blood, blood money, fire, passion. Red is energizing and in the case of anti-coal incendiary. But I found the proponent's color choice curious. Green is a color with which many of us associate nature, growth, organics. Green is also the color of the U.S. dollar. So maybe green is the appropriate choice for coal proponents. I marveled at the display of red (yes, mostly red) and green throughout the two buildings in which the hearings were being held. Sierra Club had supplied boxes of t-shirts, posters and signs to help opponents demonstrate their stance. These materials were invaluable in the hearing rooms where the crowd was not aloud to vocalize its response to the testimonies while they were given but instead could either hold up their "No Coal Export" signs or give a thumbs up or thumbs down.

PDA (public display of anti-coal) in front of BMC
PDA (public display of anti-coal) in front of BMC

After four large public hearings where coal export opposition was strongly heard, we are awaiting the governor, state agencies, and the US Army Corps of Engineers to make a decision about what will be included in the environmental impact studies of the proposal coal project and we hope it will be cumulative and programmatic.

Whatever happens, I am glad that I stepped forward on an issue I feel very strongly about. I plan to attend more hearings should they be scheduled. I have also proudly staked my opinion (shared by the rest of BMC) in the front yard of our office. The sign is both a daily reminder to me of the commitment I made last December to stand up on an issue and a goad to expend more effort in the future to make my voice heard.