The impact of coal trains from an orca’s point of view

by Rich Bergner Sunday, October 14, 2012 8:30 PM


(Guest Column published in the Skagit Valley Herald, Sunday, October 14, 2012)

RichBergnerThis is the first time I’ve written to the editor. I’m an orca, a member of J pod here in the waters of the San Juans. You shouldn’t be surprised that orcas can write. After all, you land folks have determined that corporations are people and money is speech. Let me tell you in a nutshell (or seashell) a very scary tale that is not a fairy tale.

Some very wealthy coal, railroad and financial corporations are proposing to dig up coal in vast areas of Wyoming; dump the clumps into open rail cars; haul it all the way to this part of the Northwest in 1.5-mile-long, 125-unit trains; dump all that black grit onto giant coal piles at Cherry Point; and then load it into mammoth, three-football-field-long cargo ships bound for China, India and Korea to feed their industries to outcompete us.

I’m amazed at what you people will do to maintain your fossil fuel habit. I hear some people asking, “Why should I be concerned about coal trains rumbling through Mount Vernon and Burlington and a pile of coal at Cherry point?” Let me tell you.

The coal trains will impact my orca family in the San Juans. We eat salmon, salmon eat herring, and herring need eel grass. Cherry Point herring struggle to survive when eel grass is not healthy. If the whole marine system isn’t healthy, what will I eat? What do you think adding more coal dust, diesel particles and piers are going to do to the eel grass and herring runs of Cherry Point — a marine preserve, by the way? And how will ballast water, noise pollution, sonar, bilge water and ship exhaust emissions impact all us marine creatures in the San Juans? Our fins will flop, a sign of sickness.

I read (yes, I can read, too) that “if a ship is traveling at a speed of only 15 knots, there is a 79 percent chance of a collision being lethal to a whale.” I don’t like those odds. Bulk cargo ships, such as coal vessels, discharge a huge amount of ballast water, which typically contains a variety of biological materials, including plants, animals, viruses and bacteria. Noise pollution can cause me and my buddies to be disorientated, hinder communication and make it harder to find our food.

On a ship, oil often leaks from engine and machinery spaces and mixes with water in the bilge. Oil in even small concentrations can sicken or kill fish. The Evergreen State will become the Eversheen State. I don’t want to eat sick fish.

Do you think that I’m going to stick around here when I can’t eat, hear my buddies or swim in peaceful and clean waters? So when me and my orca friends leave for cleaner, quieter and safer waters (I hope we find some), will the tourist pamphlets and phone-book covers show pictures of giant cargo ships instead of members of my family jumping out of the water? Will the tourists come (if they can get here) to see 1.5-mile-long trains rumbling through the valley, or piles of coal, or giant cargo ships?

Coal terminal. Yes, our planet may be terminal all right if all that coal is burned, releasing all the carbon into the air.

So don’t think, Fidalgo Islanders, that this coal train and coal terminal doesn’t impact you. It will impact me, and that will impact you. We are all in this together, aren’t we?

The 120-day scoping process for the EIS (environmental impact statement) for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal and Custer Spur projects has started. Letters from whales aren’t accepted, so I’m counting on you to help.

Here’s how:

If you help me keep the Northwest from becoming the Eversheen State, I will tell my orca pals to join me in popping out of the water when you come to watch us.

Richard Bergner is an Anacortes resident.

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