Reuven Carlyle says he can’t shop at the Queen Anne Trader Joe’s on Saturdays without being accosted by constituents concerned about coal trains.
Make no mistake: Carlyle’s against them. The 47-year-old state representative from the 36th District and Queen Anne resident says the proposed project just doesn’t pencil out.
“This is inconsistent with every core value around economic strategy, environmental protection, long-term quality of life and public infrastructure,” Carlyle said during a sit-down at the Westlake Center Tully’s last week. “What I have attempted to do is elevate the dialogue about the true impact and the facts.”
Carlyle, also an entrepreneur in the software and clean-energy worlds, is one of many Paul Reveres — in and out of government — sounding the alarm around the Northwest, but those voices aren’t coming together to form a cohesive narrative. And it’s the potential fragmentation of narrative within the agencies responsible for the looming draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County — that concerns Carlyle and others.
Meanwhile, the coal train proponent’s mantra is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” spun through some of the best public relations firms money can buy — a mantra designed to overpower all other arguments.
“Job production?” Carlyle asked. Citing a potential $2 billion public-infrastructure investment to allow the trains to run on time, “Why not rebuild half the schools in our state? I can find 100 public investments with better ROI (return on investment). I’m fundamentally a business guy. There’s not one investor in Seattle who would do this deal.”
Getting the facts straight
Demand for coal in this country has fallen off big-time. The Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming is this country’s largest coal-producing area; coal interests there have looked to China for new markets. Oregon has three potential shipping sites; British Columbia, two; and our state, two: Longview and the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project at Cherry Point near Ferndale.
The Cherry Point project would impact Seattle, bringing a minimum 18 additional, 1.5-mile-long trains to the city and Queen Anne and Magnolia’s front door each day, their uncovered cars causing five- to seven-minute delays at each urban crossing.
Alliance for Northwest Jobs, the coalition that ran those pro-coal-train ads a few months back, (the coalition was formed by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm), says Gateway construction would create more than 4,000 new jobs and leave behind up to 400-plus permanent jobs by 2026.
The Alliance is seeking to limit what factors can be studied in the draft EIS; opponents are trying to force a more comprehensive review.
The draft EIS, which will inform permit decisions, is officially expected in 2014, but sources in Olympia say it could come the first half of this year.
The proposed Longview and Cherry Point ports would likely double the annual freight-rail tonnage in Washington and Oregon — 80 million to 170 million — on an already-congested and weak rail infrastructure. Impacts would radiate to our ports, ferries, property values, our environment and emergency-response times, to say nothing of a Native American village site at Cherry Point.
Not least, there’s the coal dust, which raises the specter of environmental pollution and accompanying health risks even before the coal is burned. There are mitigating measures for the dust, but their effectiveness is uncertain, and it’s premature to talk mitigation.
To make this a strictly environment issue may increase political liability — Carlyle knows that, just as he knows a dash of Seattle exceptionalism added to the debate won’t help the cause in rural areas.
Carlyle can move quickly from the philosophic to the pragmatic: “China is the third-largest producer of coal in the world,” he noted. “They have closed plants due to inefficiency; they could reopen them with the flip of a switch. We have a high probability of substantial investment with a substantial probability of a customer’s change of mind.”
The press, here and there, has done a good job sifting through the issue: Scott Learn’s coverage at the Oregonian is Pulitzer-worthy; Floyd MacKay’s reporting in Crosscut.com has been thorough and clear, and the Everett Herald’s editorial pages refreshingly sane: “Fickle and hidebound suitors,” a Herald editorial stated last Nov. 8, “railroads are historically over-promising, vague and indispensable…. The coal export fallout is a slow earthquake: It might never be felt. Or it could be a harbinger of the big one. Better to exhibit leadership, do what we can, be prepared.”
Lance Dickie at The Seattle Times opined: “Whatcom County would be well positioned to revisit the 19th century — just add a whaling station and a kerosene distillery.”
The on-line website SightlineDaily has called out the putatively “green” PR firms who are, as Joel Connelly at SeattlePI.com termed it, doing “coal’s dirty work.” That list includes Edelman.
A concerted effort needed
Carlyle is concerned, during the draft EIS process, that responsible agencies aren’t connecting the dots.
In a November public statement, Carlyle wrote: “As an export-driven state, we have a fiduciary obligation to study the economic, transportation and environmental ‘externalities’ and impacts, given that this would effect nearly every aspect of our state’s economy for generations.”
Here’s the crux of his worry: “We need to acknowledge that unless multiple state agencies are instructed to formally work together to thoroughly identify potential impacts, the scope of the EIS is unlikely to include an accurate or sufficient review of economic, transportation and infrastructure issues.”
Carlyle said, at one point, he called the state Department of Transportation and asked, “How many trains go through my district each day?”
The answer: It didn’t know.
“I’m a Democrat and I believe in the role of government, but this is symbolic of a bureaucracy not looking deeper into an issue,” he said.
“We can make a choice,” Carlyle added. “There are moral implications here. And this is a pubic expenditure of billions. My job is to ensure the Department of Ecology is intellectually rigorous and courageously objective.”
To that end, on Nov. 7, Carlyle, along with six other state representatives, wrote a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire asking for multi-agency task force to study the larger issues. Gregoire’s Dec. 10 memo to the heads of four state agencies, seemed to light a fire. The governor ordered “a coordinated effort…that will allow the state to address all reasonably foreseeable impacts of these proposed projects.”
And in a letter from the governor to Carlyle the same day, Gregoire wrote, “I fully expect that the environmental-review process will provide the kind of thorough interdisciplinary and coordinated review asked for in your letter.”
However, sources in state government remain concerned about bureaucratic blind spots, about offices not talking to other offices down the hallway.
Jan. 21 is the cut-off date for commenting on the project: To weigh in, do an Internet search for “Gateway Project, Department of Ecology.”
Anything less than a thorough, comprehensive review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project would be crazy. But that doesn’t guarantee it can’t happen.
MIKE DILLON is publisher of the Queen Anne/Magnolia News. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.