Friday, December 7, 2012

Coal export hearing standoff

The recent hearing on coal exports via trains through Oregon and Washington represents two sides that are only talking at each other. One side just knows that their health is going to be substantially and seriously compromised by coal dust from passing trains originating in Montana and Wyoming. The other side is talking jobs.

In general, one state or city cannot stop interstate commerce. Imagine what the economic status of this country would be if states could deny passage of commerce. Objectiveness is hard to find. But the Oregonian has done a decent job in its coverage of the issues. E.g., see this from Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen that sets the reality stage:
"We don't have the ability to stop trains and we don't the ability to force (railroads) to cover the trains," he said. "We do have the ability to direct light at the problem and demand protective measures." [Coal clash: Multnomah County to examine health hazards from coal dust and diesel].
See my post on the Multnomah County to examine health hazards from coal dust and diesel. And it must be kept in mind that the discussion ought to be centered on coal dust effects on local communities, not on coal production. Checkout too the Oregonian's interactive map of the routes for the coal trains.

It is health vs jobs. Oddly enough there is little to no evidence that persons in non-occupational circumstances will suffer any health effects from coal dust. Arguably, harmful effect from coal dust comes from prolonged exposures as that experienced by coal miners. That is not likely to be the experience of anyone living in proximity of the railroad tracks transporting the coal.

Anecdotal experience: I come from West Virginia and from a very early age until I graduated and left the state - I lived maybe a Portland block and 1/2 from the railroad tracks where the coal trains passed through and were parked. Kids from my neighborhood played with the coal that lined the tracks. No train car covering in those days. I don't know of any detriment to the health of my neighbors. I have lived to a relatively old age without health issues. Different story for the coal miners.

And there is no evidence either that job opportunities will be significantly increased by the coal carrying trains, certainly not job opportunities in Portland. Yes there are big claims, but those claims are unsubstantiated like any of the job claims used to justify spending. E.g., just what jobs did the federal stimulus programs actually create?

It isn't even an argument about economics vs risks. Economic growth necessarily entails some risks even in these days of massive regulation of occupational health and safety. Risks have always been balanced against the end result. Without risks, the Empire State Building would never have been built (see these images), railroads would not have been built, and the industrial revolution would not have occurred without energy produced by coal.

The present day health arguments against the coal exports are irrational. However, it wouldn't matter to the opposition if the coal was being transported via leak proof containers hauled by electric vehicles. The Portland opposition is because they can. Free speech is often devoid of content, often bordering on deranged gibberish.

The focus ought to be on coal dust that could possibly be adsorbed in some manner by humans living or working in some proximity to the tracks. E.g., the comment by Oregon's governor about coal-fired plants in Asia is specious.

How about a rational discussion with objective facts devoid of emotionalism of the knee jerking Portlanders?