Northwest Tribes Speak Out Against Coal Export Terminals

Read time: 3 mins

A quick update on the coal train exports front (which I’m henceforth going to start calling the Asian Coal Express, unless anyone else has any better suggestions. Leave 'em in the comments!) 

The New York Times ran a must-read piece for anyone concerned about coal companies targeting American taxpayer-owned public lands, carting it by rail over to coastal ports throughout the Pacific Northwest, loading it onto barges and Panamax vessels, and then shipping it overseas to sell at a steep discount to Asian markets.

The article looks at the battle over the Northwest export terminals through the lens of the local American Indian tribes, who worry about the impacts on local fishing rights and the threats to sacred sites.

(As an aside, the article also has an utterly beautiful lede sentence, which just tickled the writer in me: “At age 94, Mary Helen Cagey, an elder of the Lummi Indian tribe, has seen a lot of yesterdays.” That there should be reason enough for you to click through and read the whole piece!)

The Pacific Northwest tribes have formed a unified front that may well prove to be the strongest forces of opposition to the coal export terminals.

The tribes’ chief concern is the impact of coal dust along the rail routes, at the terminals, and in the rivers, as the barges float through crucial fishing areas that have been used for centuries, and protected by an array of treaties and rights for decades.

Fifty-seven tribes, speaking through the regional congress, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, are demanding a full environmental impact analysis that would involve all six of the currently proposed export terminals. As DeSmog reported last week, the environmental assessments and approval are currently limited to a case-by-case basis, and the Army Corps of Engineers is taking a very limited scope of the impacts immediately at the sites of the terminals themselves, but nothing up-rail, or down-river.

Brooklyn Baptiste of the Nez Perce Tribe doesn’t believe that this limited environmental assessment is nearly enough. “We deserve the maximum attention and expect the lead and coordinating agencies to provide the full environmental studies on all ports, as they will be making one of the largest decisions impacting human health, the environment and economies of not only our tribal communities, but of our neighboring citizens of the Northwest.”

In a public statement, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a fishing-focused group affiliated with the regional congress, make some equally compelling arguments. Two in particular stand out.

Paul Lumley, Executive Director of the commission, explains the geographical context: “Along the Columbia River it’s cliff, highway, railroad, then river. Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We’ve got nowhere to escape. If we cannot escape, neither will the coal.”

Then you have Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Tribe echoing those sentiments. “We believe the Northwest is interconnected through the families, resources and waterways, that these coal terminals and railway routes should be addressed in a holistic manner,” said Cladoosby. “If a coal train or tanker were to spill on the route or in the river at Port Morrow in Oregon, the water ways will carry the pollution throughout the Northwest, and coal dust will be carried through the mountains in the air we all breath.”

Spills, crashes and any other inevitable disasters aside, even the status quo process of transporting all this coal on rail and then barge has the very serious potential to pollute. Coal dust is notoriously hard to contain, and communities along both the rail and barge routes could expect their air and water to fall victim to that pollution. 

Surely, any legitimate environmental assessment has to consider those operational impacts, and not just the dredging and construction of the terminals themselves. 

Get DeSmog News and Alerts


Panamax is a class of ocean vessel, not a barge.  The proposed coal terminal on Cherry Point would load directly into a bulk coal carrier is not limited by Panama Canal locks size.

The Port of Murrow proposal would load onto barges, pushed or pulled by tugboats, down to the coal transshipment facility for loading onto ocean vessels.  The barges are limited in size by the locks on the dams in the Lower Columbia River, much smaller than Panama Canal locks.

You're absolutely right. I condensed a couple of steps in the process in the interest of brevity, but goofed up combining the barges with the Panamax vessels. The post has been corrected. Thanks!

Panamax is with regard to fitting through the Panama canal and has nothing whatsoever with the limitations due to terminal size and depth for either the proposed Cherry Point terminal nor the one on the Columbia River.  The depth limitation of the Columbia River bar means there is a Columbiamax size, but I've never seen that term used.

For both proposed projects it is the more limiting of the terminals at both ends that provide the size limitation on the ocean going colliers that would be employed.

The only reason we refer to Panamax in the post is because the barges from the Columbia would eventually be offloaded onto Panamax vessels. The barges (initially one per day) would head down to the Port Westward Industrial Park in Port of St. Helens, where the coal would be transferred to oceangoing Panamax vessels. 

The Port of St. Helens is inside the Columbia River estuary.  Therefore the ocean going colliers must be capable of crossing the Columbia River bar.  However, there is no width restriction and the dimensions of the colliers are not limited by the depth, width and length restictions of the Panama Canal locks.  The colliers may be more seriously size restricted by the receiving terminals in Asia, but nobody is proposing sending coal through the Panama Canal.

Appreciate your insight and comments. I based the statement on Ambre Energy's own plans for the terminals, and from the Army Corps of Engineers “Public Notice” about the projects. They both say that the coal will be loaded onto Panamax vessels at Port Westward. (As does this announcement from the Association of Pacific Ports from when the Port of St. Helens approved the coal agreement.)

Also see this map from Ambre.

If you have more specific information about the Port of St. Helens and their Panamax capabilities (or lack thereof), I'd love to see it. I'm certainly no expert. By my reading of all the government and company literature, though, it seems as if part of the project is to create a new terminal facility at Port Westward that would be capable of transferring coal from barge to Panamax.

As for the Panama Canal, some coal is already shipped through the canal (though not much–only 10.5 MMT heading west and about a third that heading east). But many coal companies are already salivating about the potential for shipping through the canal when expansions are complete in 2015. (See here and here.)

And for anyone reading who is just wondering “what the heck is this Panamax stuff they're talking about,” Panamax is a size group for ocean vessels. It's based on the maximum acceptible size to move through the Panama Canal (get it?). Just because it's called Panamax doesn't mean that it necessarily travels through the canal, though. It has become a pretty standard size for overseas shipping. Though come 2015, with the expansion of the canal, we can expect an increase in Post-Panamax vessels.

Thorough enough.  It may be that the Coast Guard rules of navigation for the Columbia River requires nothing larger than Panamax in the river.

Interesting about some coal moving eastward through the Panama Canal.  I never would have suspected that.