At the Federal Coal Leasing Program Hearing at the Seattle Sheraton. It is 7:45 a.m. and there is already a line of 60 or so people to sign up as speakers. The Bureau of Land Management is holding a “scoping hearing”, seeking public input on whether to continue the pause in coal leases on public lands instituted by Interior Dept. Secretary, Sally Jewell in January 2016.
With global climate targets already bumping up against the (dangerously high) two degrees of additional warming allowed under the Paris Climate Summit, a record breaking warm spring in the northern hemisphere, and the understanding that coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, it’s pretty clear that most of the crowd of several hundred people were there to say “keep it in the ground”.
After last year’s successful Shell No protest which was pivotal in causing Shell to walk away from its oil drill leases in the Arctic, taking an eight billion dollar loss on its investment, it was reported that one oil executive was overheard saying “Seattle is where fossil fuel projects go to die.” Shell claimed their decision to abandon their Arctic oil leases was due to the low price of crude, but its pretty clear that widespread social media images of hundreds of indigenous canoes and kayaktivists surrounding Shell’s “Death Star” oil rig in Seattle’s harbor, and more kayaktivists on the Willamette River, and Greenpeace activists hanging from a bridge, blockading a support vessel, turned the tide of public opinion.
Fast forward to June 3, 2016 when an oil “bomb” train carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil destined for Tacoma, derailed in Mosier, Oregon, in the Columbia Gorge, with sixteen cars catching fire, followed by large explosions and tens of thousands of gallons of crude spilling into the Columbia River, forcing the evacuation of a nearby elementary school, and the loss of potable water in the community. The cause – a defective spike in the track. Citizens across the country increasingly are demanding an end to bomb trains like the one which killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Ontario in 2013. Here in Seattle, bomb trains roll directly past sports stadiums. Century Link field holds 67,000 people when full. It doesn’t take much to detonate a bomb train and unsavory characters have doubtless considered the apocalyptic possibilities.
Coal trains, by comparison, kill with less drama, more invisibly. Diesel and dust from mile long coal trains, passing disproportionately through communities of color, infiltrate the lungs, leading to a host of respiratory illnesses and cancers, poisoning rivers and near shore estuary ecosystems, adversely impacting the livelihood of native American communities which rely heavily on fishing. This was ultimately the logic which killed the coal terminal proposal at Cherry Point near Bellingham. The Lummi nation succesfully argued that the terminal would adversely impact their fishing treaty rights. The dangers and impacts to commerce and recreation of at-grade rail crossings were also noted by several commenters at today’s hearing. In fact, out of six mega fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the Pacific Northwest, only one remains on the table – the Millennium Bulk Logistics coal export terminal in Longview, Washington. That decision is pending review. The network of fossil fuel by rail crisscrossing Washington is staggering.
When I arrived at the Sheraton, a lady pastor in line ahead of me asked me why I had come. “I am a person of conscience”, I told her. If I sit at home and say nothing, not bothering to inform myself, then I am complicit in these crimes against humanity and the planet. When I was given speaker card number 72, quick math (each commenter was allowed 3 minutes) told me that I would not be able to speak before having to leave for other commitments in the early afternoon. But I stayed for nearly six hours, bearing witness, and educating myself. I was pleased that so many women and indigenous people had the opportunity to speak. With our long history of colonialism and patriarchy in the U.S., too often that is not the case. Many of the indigenous people spoke eloquently about the need to protect the land for seven generations and beyond, which was basically the focus of my prepared talk anyways:
The science is clear. The planet is getting warmer, with deadly consequences to all life. Human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels is the reason. Continuing to allow coal extraction on federal (public) land in the face of such clear, unequivocal scientific evidence, is not merely bad public policy, it is an act of collective suicide, a death knell for humanity and most of life on the planet.
Yesterday I harvested these beans from my garden (imagine me pulling a handful of radiant green beans from my pockets and holding them in front of my heart with both hands raised upwards in reverence, appealing to the conscience of the bureaucrats up on stage). I have been feeding them to my family for the past two weeks. I offer thanks and humble respect to the rains and sunshine and insects and pure seeds, all in the right proportion, which helped produce this perfect food.
All life exists in a very delicate balance. The foundational sustenance of our lives does not come from the supermarket , printed green paper, plastic cards, or graphs of economic data about GNP displayed on a laptop computer. It comes from the web of life, the land, soil, air, water, sun, and indigenous wisdom traditions which hold as sacred every living being. We are running out of time. We don’t have three more years to wait while you fiddle with your data analysis. Accelerate plans to transition away from all fossil fuel extractive industries and develop safe renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind (not nuclear!), and work with impacted communities to ensure a just transition for workers in dying industries, as well as engage in robust environmental remediation to heal impacted ecosystems. Thank you for this opportunity to speak and be heard. #KeepItInTheGround.
What You Can Do:
Written comments may be sent to the BLM until July 28, 2016.
Mail: Coal Programmatic EIS Scoping
Bureau of Land Management
20 M St. SE, Room 2134 LM
Washington, D.C. 20003