Congressman Jim McDermott has served in the House since 1989. His newest bill is called the True Cost Of Coal Act of 2012. EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn sat down with the Seattle Democrat to talk about it.
EarthFix: So tell me how this bill works.
McDermott: Well basically what we do is we put a tax on every ton of coal that’s dug out of the ground and the money goes into a trust fund and then the money is channeled back to deal with mitigation of the effects of mining coal and transporting it out of the country. It also can be used to give back dividends to people whose utility rates go up for one reason or another. It really is so we factor in at the beginning all the costs of mining coal and don’t look at it simply as “how much money do we make at the end of the line.” There’s a lot of costs that need to be talked about as we proceed down the line.
EarthFix: So this isn’t just about the coal being burned here. This is, no matter where the coal gets burned, the U.S. stands to make some money on it.
McDermott: Absolutely. It was brought to my attention in this area because of the actions of bringing the coal through the city of Seattle and then up the coast to Bellingham to be sent out on a boat to China and suddenly we were going to get 18 trains a day going through my district and people came to me and said, “what can we do about it?” Well, we can’t prohibit it from happening. If I could do that, that would be my first choice. But my second choice is to make sure we take care of all the problems it creates.
EarthFix: So the dividends from your bill, if it were to pass could be used towards what? To improve neighborhood rail crossings? Would it be that specific?
McDermott: It would be allocated to the states so they can mitigate the impacts of having the coal trains go through and that could be a lot of things. One of the things we could use was covers on train cars so the dust doesn’t get out in the first place, that would be one thing. Or we could talk about underpasses or overpasses or we talk about all the things that might be impacted – noise barriers in schools – I mean if you’ve got schools and you’re going to have 18 more trains a day rattling through, we have the problem at the airport, we mitigate down there for planes landing, well we ought to talk about what noise trains create.
EarthFix: Does this bill have a chance?
McDermott: This bill has a chance because it also has money in it for deficit reduction. Part of why I put it in now, people said, “well why are you doing it now?” well because we’re going to have tax reform in the next session of congress and I want this to be on the table for people to discuss in advance of getting to the overall discussion and you have to give people time to think about this because people are making all kinds of crazy statements – “oh this will stop jobs, stop the economy,” no, none of that’s true. I did it very carefully to make sure it didn’t cause a loss of jobs in fact it will create jobs because cities will then have money to put in the mitigation that they don’t have now. If Seattle had to come up with some money for mitigating this or Bellingham or Everett or Edmonds, I mean this train runs right down the main street of Edmonds. All these places would be stuck with the bill and get nothing out of it.
EarthFix: Are you seeing bipartisan support so far?
McDermott: Up to this point I’m just putting it out there for discussion piece and the way it will happen will be that people will begin to come and sign on the bill because people in their district find out about it. You’re going to find people from Oregon, you’re going to find people from Longview, you’re going to find a lot of people who are upset about this in these areas and they are going to come to their members in Congress and say, “Why aren’t you on that coal bill?” It’s not a bill that members are going to run out and jump on but when they get the pressure from the environment in which they live, then they’re going to be interested.
EarthFix: In your time in office you’ve watched exports ebb and flow … How does coal fit into our export vision in this region?
McDermott: I think all ports are the same thing. They’re just looking for things to put on ships and send out and receive from ships coming in. They don’t have much to say about all of it, but you’re absolutely right, we have had all kinds of things that have changed in the 20 years that I’ve been – more than that, I’ve been in the legislature and in the congress – So, these ideas that people have for making money or transporting goods, they may sound good at the beginning but you gotta start thinking about, well what are all the costs? And I suspect we’ll deal with this one way or another. It may be that we don’t bring ‘em certain places or we require real strict standards about how they transport them through the area.
EarthFix: So you’re not against coal exports, you’re just looking for a way to manage them, or at least get some money out of this transaction?
McDermott: Well, I wish we would stop burning coal, worldwide, in terms of global climate change. I think the summer, the drought in the middle West, and all the severe thunder storms and all the climate problems we’re having I think we would be better off if we stopped burning coal, but we can’t because some people need energy. India had a total blackout for a third of a country of a billion three hundred thousand people, you can’t suddenly turn off burning coal, so then you have to look at how you can mitigate the problems and we’ll work at it and see what we can do.
EarthFix: Congressman, thanks so much.
McDermott: You’re welcome.
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.
Join our Public Insight Network!