In the past few weeks, EarthFix has begun a regional project to document — using photos, video, mapping and audio –- what exporting American coal to China could mean for the people in the Northwest. The most exciting part of this project, for me, is getting in my car and following train tracks around Washington. First stop: Hoquiam, WA - one of the proposed sites for an export terminal along Washington’s coast.
The identity of this downtrodden port city is firmly entwined with its position as a nexus between land-based natural resources and the ocean necessary to transport them. Hoquiam has a long history as an export hub in the Northwest. It was one of the main exodus routes for Northwestern timber in the booming middle portion of the 20th century –- and well before. Many of the people here make their living facilitating the movement of goods from the Northwest to the rest of the world. So, what better place to start the day than at the port’s longshoreman’s union?
Local 24 Longshoreman’s Union, Aberdeen
It’s 6:55 a.m. when I walk in the door of the Local 24 headquarters in the Port of Grays Harbor. The wood-paneled walls and linoleum floors make me think of a church function hall from the ‘80s. Men in work boots and sweatshirts mill around sipping coffee and at a counter on one side of the room, Tom O’Connor calls them up, one by one, to the window and assigns them work for the day.
At morning check-in Longshoreman Tom O’Connor assigns Dale to “skill” - organizing the bales of pulp after the crane brings them onboard the ship. Dale says it’s kind of like Tetris. Take a listen below.
There’s a load of wood pulp that needs to be put on a ship bound for Asia, and workers are assigned to man the deck, work the lift and stack the bails of pulp –- among other jobs.
Joe Sliva steps away from the group to talk to me. He’s wearing a baseball cap and a surprisingly warm smile for this early hour. Joe has longshoring in his blood and has lived in Aberdeen all his life. He talks about how things have been tough for this union, and the towns nearby, since the end of big timber times. He has friends in the community who can’t find work. When I ask him about the export terminal, I can see his enthusiasm.
“Every time we get more ships in, you know, it creates more jobs,” Joe says. “So that coal facility would bring that many more jobs in. I think it’s something the community could use.”
There are no official agreements or permits for the terminal in Grays Harbor yet, but here are the stats that have been released from RailAmerica, the company that is considering building the terminal:
And from the Port of Grays Harbor:
If those 5 million tons of coal are burned in China, that would mean the same amount of greenhouse gases as putting about two and a half million new cars on the road.
But most places in town people are talking about jobs –- not climate change.
Next stop: Bill’s XL Bakery:
Jennifer Arnold and her son, Cameron, at Bill’s XL Bakery. Jennifer owns the bakery and hand makes the donuts every day. Stop in for a listen.
Jennifer Arnold has piercing light-blue eyes and a quick laugh. She owns this bakery and hand-makes dozens upon dozens of beautiful crullers, cherry turnovers, fritters, danishes and frosted cake donuts every day.
Bill’s XL Bakery has been open since the ‘30s. It’s a hub in the community -– and a sort of thermometer for its economic health. A paper mill closed last year and 200 people lost their jobs. Arnold says the bakery felt that loss.
“I used to have a lot of clientele from people that would buy doughnuts to take to work to share with their fellow workers, and a lot of it has stopped because they don’’t have the money or they’ve lost their job,” she says.
Arnold’s 23-year-old son, Cameron, stands beside her at the counter. He says he doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth but loves the strawberry cream-cheese croissants. Behind his left ear is a tattoo of the letter A, for his last name. He has his mother’s beautiful eyes. Cameron seems a little lost in the world. He doesn’t have a job and has never really left Hoquiam.
“I been turning in resumes and stuff, but for a young adult, it’s hard to find a job here in Grays Harbor. This coal thing would open up a lot of jobs for the harbor. I think it would be cool,” he says.
The coal that will create these jobs will most likely be sent to China and burned for electricity. Scientists are concerned about what those emissions could mean for the global climate, but Cameron and his mom aren’t worried. They say climate change is a lot of hype.
But there are others in town who worry about the environmental impacts, locally and globally, of the new terminal.
Next stop: The Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.
Arnie Martin looks a little bit like the birds he adores. He’s a retiree who moved to Hoquiam almost 10 years ago and volunteers at this wildlife refuge, which is a hot spot for shorebirds who stop here on their migrations between the hemispheres. We’re about a mile from the site of the proposed export terminal.
Arnie Martin has lived in Hoquiam for almost ten years. He’s an avid birder and a volunteer with the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, which he fears could be negatively impacted if coal is shipped through the new terminal that could go in within a mile from here. Take a listen.
Arnie Martin is worried about coal dust getting into nearby Bowerman Basin (where all the birds hang out in the refuge). He’s also worried about the possibility of one of the big ships having an accident on their way in and out of port. A spill, he says, would destroy this lush feeding ground.
There’s a song sparrow off in the brush nearby. It’s early in the season yet, but Arnie lists off the types of birds that come through here. I like hearing the sounds of their names: ruddy turnstones, black bellied plovers, red knots, long- and short-billed dowichers.
We get in his Prius and drive along the railroad tracks back into the center of town. To our left is the high school track — butting right up against the road — then the elementary school. To our right, not more than 200 yards away, are the train tracks that would carry the coal to the nearby export terminal.
Arnie Martin and other environmentalists talk a lot about what stands to be lost. But overwhelmingly, the people I talked to in Grays Harbor wanted to talk about what stands to be gained if the new terminal is built.
The port commissioners have expressed concerns about air quality and water quality as well as traffic caused by the mile-long trains when they come through the towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, but 60 new full-time and about 150 short-term construction jobs — in a town of less than 10,000 — excites them. At City Hall, the mood is similar. The city of Hoquiam stands to bring in up to $1 million in taxes and fees from the project. That’s about 30 percent of the city’s general fund.
Finally, before leaving town I made two stops –- the Walmart and the nursing home.
Folks that shop at the Walmart in neighboring Aberdeen are often trapped in or out of the parking lot when trains come through. To get in, you have to drive across the train tracks. One commercial fisherman told me he’s been stuck waiting for over an hour for the train to get out of the way. He times his grocery-shopping trips to avoid the trains. But when I asked him if the thought of more train traffic upsets him he—without hesitating—said that if it means more jobs, he has no problem with it.
Grays Harbor has known boom and bust over the years, and has, for the most part, welcomed the extractive resource-based industries that have shaped the identity of this port.
The director of the Hoquiam nursing home told me that her residents remember the boom days of the timber industry. That’s why many of them can can afford a nice place to be cared for as they grow old. But she worries that without a new industry in town, the younger generations won’t be able to pay for the cozy accommodations on offer to the older generation now.
At this point, RailAmerica, the company that wants to build the terminal, is doing research on the site but hasn’t entered any kind of formal agreement or permitting process. If they decide to move forward with the project, they would need approval from the port to lease the land. Then they would have to complete an Environmental Impact Statement.
The port of Grays Harbor has diversified in recent years. It now hosts a large biodiesel refinery and export operation. It’s also an export hub for soy and Chrysler cars –- row upon row of shiny new Jeeps, bound for Asia.
It’s too soon to say how coal might fit into this port’s future, but right now, jobs and revenue seem to be at the center of the conversation here.
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