Brisbane based coal company Ambre Energy is attempting to open up coal export business in Oregon in the US Pacific Northwest, but the locals aren't very impressed. Last Wednesday over 400 Oregonians rallied outside their Capitol building in Salem, Oregon to stop the Ambre Energy Morrow Pacific coal export project which would transport 8 million metric tonnes of coal annually by rail and barge down the Columbia river destined to be burnt in China, with the pollution returning by prevailing winds to the US and Canada.
You may remember that Ambre Energy wanted to develop a huge open cut coal mine and coal to liquid natural gas project at Felton on Queensland's Darling Downs. The Friends of Felton waged a fierce local campaign against the proposal which was ultimately successful. In January 2013 Ambre Energy conceded it's plans for a coal mine and coal to liquid project in the Felton Valley, about 30km west of Toowoomba in southeast Queensland, could not proceed due to the fierce community opposition from the local rural community.
Over in Oregon, on Wednesday last Columbia Riverkeeper reported on their facebook page that 425 people attended the midweek rally in Salem to stop coal export. See pictures of the rally on Demotix. You can read more about the fight to stop coal export from the Pacific Northwest at Power Past Coal.
The fight against coal export is an international one. Newcastle residents in New South Wales, Australia are fighting against the T4 coal loader being built to expand coal export from the world's biggest coal port. It is the same fight to stop King Coal in Australia and in the United States. The three companies keen to export coal from the Powder River basin are Peabody Energy, Ambre Energy, and Arch Coal. (See Sourcewatch: Coal exports from ports on the west coast of Canada and the United States)
This youtube video by Greenpeace USA explains the issue of coal export from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana through the Pacific Northwest and the impacts this will have: Get the Coal Energy Facts: Help Us Stop Coal Exports:
One of the speakers at the Salem rally was Dr Patrick O'Herron, Trauma and acute care surgeon, Salem Oregon, who attended the rally with several medical colleagues representing over 600 health care representatives in the Pacific north-west sounding the alarm on coal exports.
His speech, which I have transcribed. Watch the video on youtube: Sound The Alarm Rally Doctor on Coal: It Will Make You SICK! :
I am here to tell you that coal exports are a clear threat to public health. The transport of coal is implicated in lung disease, delayed lung development in children, cardiovascular disease like strokes, heart attacks and neurological disease.
As a medical doctor and a surgeon let me convey this as plainly as I can.
This stuff makes you sick. What stuff am I talking about? Well let's start with coal dust and diesel particulates.
Coal dust is the known cause of black lung disease. Diesel particulates contain known carcinogens. Of course not every coal miner gets black lung disease and not every person exposed to diesel particulates gets cancer. How much exposure is okay? Well, we don't really know that as science is incomplete. We could however study tens of thousands of Oregonians by rolling hundreds of coal trains past their communities every month. Each of these trains loses roughly 30 pounds of coal dust per mile.
30 pounds of dust. Think about that. That's a lot of dust. But maybe we shouldn't do that study after all.
Well, what about using covered barges instead of trains? The barges have their own not insignificant set of problems.
But regardless of how this coal is transported to Asia, when it gets there, it is burned. And that releases toxins and CO2. I don't know if people have had a chance to see the pictures of the air quality in Beijing this January, but the pollution can be seen from space. And where does all that toxin laden smog end up? Well, the prevailing winds blows it across the Pacific and it ends up back here.
And that's not to mention CO2. I don't really have time to discuss the grave public health implications of climate change, but suffice it to say it is probably the gravest problem we face.
But let me tell you a story. As a surgical intern one of your duties is to round on all the patients on your service in the morning before the team arrives. So I was the new intern at the VA hospital, and it was about 5 in the morning, and there was a patient who I was particularly fond of who I could not find. Which was odd because he had just undergone surgery to remove part of his lung from lung cancer. As I am frantically looking about for him, one of the nurses clued me in.
I walked outside the hospital and across the street and there he was smoking. And he was smoking through his stoma because this wasn't his first major operation. His smoking had caused him to have throat cancer and he had most of his throat removed as well.
So this patient is all of us. Our habit is burning fossil fuels. And that particular cigarette that he was smoking the day after his second major operation - a cancer caused by his smoking - is this coal export project.
Let me end with a story of another smoker. That's my mum. My mum smoked in her twenties, but the day she found out that she was pregnant with my elder sister, she quit and she never touched another cigarette again. And that's the choice we need to make. That's why I am calling for Governor Kitzhaber both as a public servant and as a fellow doctor to ensure that an area wide public impact statement is done, that a comprehensive health impact assessment is done, but most importantly that these permits for coal export now for Ambre Energy and others are denied.
Anjala Ehelebe, a historian and Land Use co-Chair of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association says that even through the few "rough decades" she and her disabled husband have loved the years they have lived in the fascinating Woodlawn neighborhood, but she now worries that coal trains will harm its recovery just as the town starts to flourish again. "The original Town of Woodlawn first flourished in 1888 when a passenger railroad was extended into its center and a train station was built on a triangular block," said Ehelebe. "Now, almost 130 years later, proposed mile - long trains with open railcars of coal may start choking our neighborhood's health and prosperity."
Bob Rees the President of Northwest Guides and Anglers Association in Tillamook pointed to the environmental degradation that occurs with immense carbon emissions associated with the transporting and burning of coal as a serious threat to the longevity of the Pacific Northwest fishing industry.
"Coal is a leading culprit in the further degradation of our sensitive environment," says Rees. "Our Pacific Northwest salmon stocks need clean water and healthy ecosystems. Coal exports push these already sensitive fish populations in the wrong direction, further jeopardizing the tens of thousands of jobs that salmon currently support." said Mr Rees.
Australian company Ambre Energy and coal export
The original application permit by Australian company Ambre Energy stated 5 million tons of coal per year would be exported, but further documents revealed plans to expand this to shipments up to 60 million tons, according to a New York Times report from February 2011.
According to a report by the non-profit Sightline Institute Ambre Energy is not a very solvent company taking in less than $7 million in revenues since it's founding in 2005 while wracking up losses of $124 million. Much of this debt is in the form of loans with interest rates of 10 to 12 percent. The company has purchased a US mining business, but this business has substantial liabilities estimated to be around $240 million. It is estimated that roughly $1 billion would need to be raised to make the coal export plans viable.
Clark Williams-Derry, researcher and report author, Sightline Institute, said: "Ambre Energy barely even qualifies as a bona fide coal company, much less a powerhouse in the coal export business. The company attempts to portray itself as well-established multinational coal conglomerate, but its financial records paint a picture of high-risk start up venture that had never even produced coal until 2011."
Already China is indicating it wants to cap it's coal consumption to 4 billion tonnes per year, not much higher than it's current consumption.
Tom Sanzillo, finance director, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said: "Despite projections of robust short- and long-term global demand for more thermal coal, U.S. coal producers are challenged to find their permanent niche in the global marketplace. Slower growth in China and India tighten demand, a condition that favors existing suppliers. Price signals today do not present the same robust profit scenarios of even six months ago. Port projects and the mining sector that underwrites them were once filled with opportunity and optimism, but now face sobering uncertainty."
On Friday, 14 March 2013 Ambre Energy's permit application decision was delayed 5 months to September 1st. The Ambre Morrow Pacific export project entails building an enclosed terminal at the Port of Morrow with a new Columbia River Dock. Coal would arrive from Wyoming by coal train, then loaded on covered barges for transport to an existing dock near Clatskanie where it would be loaded onto bulk coal ships bound for China.
Pressure needs to be kept up to stop coal export through Oregon and Washington ports. Each coal train will leave a deadly legacy in coal dust for the tens of thousands of people that live or work near the rail corridor.
Watch a summary youtube video of the Sound the Alarm Rally, including excerpts of the Raging Grannies performing coal carols.
- Sightline Institute media release 13 February 2013 - Report: Ambre Energy Unlikely to Succeed with U.S. Coal Exporting Plans
- New York Times, 14 February 2011 - In Northwest, a Clash Over a Coal Operation
- Youtube Video , 14 March 2013 - Sound The Alarm Rally Doctor on Coal: It Will Make You SICK!
- Youtube Video 13 March 2013 - Anti-Coal Rally "Sound The Alarm" 03/13/13 Oregon State Capitol
- Power Past Coal media release 13 March 2013 - Over 450 Flood Salem to Sound the Alarm on Pending Coal Export Permit (PDF)