Liz Talley moved into her North Beach home in 2009. The house sits on a bluff, so she can see into the train cars that pass below.
Talley didn’t give the trains much thought until about a year ago, when she began to notice some of the cars contained coal. The grayish-black mounds were left uncovered, open to the elements.
When Talley researched open bed coal, what she found alarmed her. Shipping coal in open-bed trains creates toxic coal dust, which can cause asthma and respiratory problems. But because coal is highly combustible, covering it is difficult and risky.
Worried that dust from uncovered coal could pollute the soil and water, the Ballard real estate agent began warning her neighbors about the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point in Bellingham, which would increase the amount of coal shipped on the rails through the Puget Sound and into Canada, for export to China.
“I had no idea when I bought this house that I was going to be the coal queen,” Talley said with a laugh.
Call her an accidental activist. Talley has testified before Seattle City Council, canvassed her community, and published an editorial in The Seattle Times warning about the potential health, safety, environmental, and economic risks of more coal being shipped by rail through the region.
Now, Talley is rallying friends and neighbors to attend a public hearing on Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. The hearing is from 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at North Seattle Community College, 9600 College Way North.
The hearing is being held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Dept. of Ecology, and Whatcom County. You can read the EIS and get more information at eisgatewaypacificwa.gov/about/overview.
Long a controversy in Bellingham, where Cherry Point is located, opposition to the terminal has spread around the region. Twice, Talley spoke before the Seattle City Council about the issue, and in May, citing health and environmental concerns, the council unanimously approved a resolution opposing transporting coal across Washington State. Leaders of other West Coast towns and cities have done the same.
The council released a study Nov. 5 that showed that an increase in coal trains would cause traffic delays of between one and three hours per day, increasing fire and police response times.
“This study suggests that 18 coal trains per day, each one more than a mile long, could create a wall between our waterfront and our maritime and industrial businesses,” Mayor Mike McGinn said in a statement.
The study, commissioned by the Seattle Department of Transportation and conducted by Parametrix, also indicated that increased “gate down” times at railroad crossings could increase the potential for accidents, because motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists, frustrated by long waits at crossings, are more likely to attempt to cross when the red lights start to flash or the railroad gates are down.
Tally has collected about 400 signatures from friends and neighbors and with the help of Sierra Club, she is forwarding them to Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark.
Getting businesses to sign on as opponents of the plan is also part of her push, because their opinion “seems to have more teeth,” she said.
At an Oct. 9 community meeting Talley helped organize, McGinn showed up and encouraged those who oppose coal to keep up their fight.
Talley said she’s taking that advice, because the issue of coal hits close to home.
“I started paying attention to this,” she said, “because it started in my backyard.”