Political power’s limits

Truth and conventional wisdom don’t always align. In the debate over coal trains, two narratives merit a closer review. One involves the nature and limits of political power. The other centers on the inviolable railroads that built the American West.

Proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point have been vastly outnumbered at the scoping hearings on the proposal’s environmental impacts. Nevertheless, a mass of coal skeptics, minus local, environmental data, won’t derail an export facility. The mission of the scoping process is not to jawbone the wisdom of exporting American-subsidized coal to China and its contribution to climate change, nor is it a cumulative, comprehensive economic analysis to determine the net fallout to the Northwest.

The co-lead agencies — the Washington State Department of Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County — have a narrower focus, looping back to the mission of an Environmental Impact Statement. The EIS was conceived in the late 1960s by two U.S. Senate staffers, Port Townsend native Bill Van Ness, an attorney, and a genius engineer from the Bronx, Dan Dreyfus. Section 102 of the National Environmental Policy Act began as a modest proposal, to measure adverse environmental impacts and to review alternatives. “Nobody seemed to pay much attention to it,” Van Ness said. They pay attention now. Unlike Oregon, Washington codified a state version of the EIS its State Environmental Policy Act of 1971. Washington has more tools to throttle a coal-export facility, but the rules can be arcane.

The wonky back story illustrates political limits. Anti-train resolutions by Seattle and Edmonds city councils express public sentiment, but sentiment can’t deflect interstate commerce, especially if impacts can be mitigated. And here the story gets interesting. Who pays for tunnels, grade changes and other train-related costs? Mostly local governments. Railroads never shell out more than 5 percent for mitigation.

Railroads transformed the American West, but the history of rail begs to be de-mythologized. The Great Northern Railway, which breathed life into Everett more than a century ago, was absorbed and merged into Burlington Northern in 1970 (Now Burlington Northern Santa Fe.) In his seminal history, “Railroaded, The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America,” former University of Washington Professor Richard White debunked the old history of shrewd robber barons driving 19th century growth. In fact, railroad execs failed repeatedly. In the Gilded Age, Congress and the courts served as the railroads’ patron and bail-out mechanism.

Appearances deceive. Real power regarding coal trains sits with Congress and the federal government. And railroads, like Big Coal, still lean heavily on the public sector.

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