If coal export terminals are too risky for many ports because of their checkered past on the West Coast, there is a alternative strategy for economic development: clean up and redevelopment of polluted port sites. It’s a strategy that is proving to create many more jobs than coal, and with far less pollution.
First, though, to understand how poorly coal export stacks up, let’s consider the facts at Longview. Millennium Bulk Logistics proposes to use a former mill site owned by Alcoa to export coal. The site, which occupies prime waterfront industrial land, is contaminated with pollution from the mill operation. Cowlitz County faces a choice for the site: approve Millennium’s proposed coal export terminal or force Alcoa to clean it up to attract other business. The choice should not be a hard one since Alcoa has already signed an Agreed Order with the Washington Department of Ecology, in 2007, requiring Alcoa to clean up the site’s pollution.
In fact, Alcoa has a good track record cleaning up aluminum mills and selling the land for more productive uses. In the last five years, Alcoa has successfully completed cleanup of former aluminum mills in Troutdale, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. Alcoa even received a national award for its cleanup of the Troutdale site. Both sites are now active job-producing industrial areas.
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In Troutdale, the recently cleaned site is now the home of a FedEx Ground regional distribution center that employs over 750 people. And in Vancouver, the Port purchased Alcoa’s cleaned up 218-acre mill site and now expects up to 1,000 new jobs there. The Vancouver site, called Terminal 5, will be put to immediate use to construct improved rail service and accommodate a surge in wind turbines and other cargos, while preparing for more development of the marine terminal in the near future.
The employment numbers for coal exports don’t stack up well either. The proposed coal export terminal at Longview would occupy 416 acres of heavy industrial waterfront property and produce 70 jobs (with a net gain of only 20 new jobs)—less than 0.2 jobs per acre. By contrast, the Troutdale facility occupies 700 acres of heavy industrial property, but supports 1.1 jobs per acre. The Port of Vancouver site, with 218 acres of heavy industrial waterfront, will generate 4.6 jobs per acre.
The comparison between the Longview coal proposal and the real jobs at Troutdale and Vancouver illustrate what economic analysis has shown again and again: that coal is a poor strategy for jobs, and there are far more jobintensive uses for port lands. For example, a marine construction company leasing just 3.5 acres of land and a new cold storage facility on 17 acres of land at the Port of Tacoma are each expected to generate 100 new jobs.A Port of Seattle economic impact study found that shipping 1,000 metric tons of grain—a bulk commodity like coal—generated just 0.09 jobs, compared to 0.57 jobs for containerized cargo and 4.2 jobs for “break bulk” cargo, such as big machines or goods shipped on pallets, which requires more handling.A study at the Port of Baltimore came to similar conclusions, finding that coal export supports just 0.11 jobs per 1,000 metric tons, as compared to 0.41 for other dry bulk commodities, 0.43 jobs for containerized cargo, and even 1.71 jobs for autos.
It is important for Northwest port communities to weigh the promise of jobs against the economic threats of investing in the “most risky” coal market. Portland’s failed gamble on coal export in the 1980s was ridiculed by the Oregonian for actually costing the region jobs:
By signing a 25-year lease with Pacific Coal, Port officials tied up 90.69 acres of riverfront land suitable for heavy industry at a time when the Portland area desperately needed jobs.
Let’s hope the Northwest is not condemned to repeat the past.
Much of this blog post originally appeared in the research memo ”Coal Export: A History of Failure for Western Ports,” a joint project of Sightline and Columbia Riverkeeper.
Again Eric, your looking at this so short sided. Its not just port jobs, its all the supporting jobs, the railroad jobs over at least four western states, its the construction jobs not only at the ports but also for the railroads. It is funny that there has been so much automation over the past 30+ years your only picking on this commodity. Grain doesn’t harding take anyone to run the terminal, but yet if these grain terminals being built no one would be saying a word.. But I do give you credit, you keep trying to bring things up that I can and will argue. (It gives the wife a break, she thanks you…lol j/king)
Eric de Place
It’s true that coal exports would produce some jobs in rail and mining, but alternative uses of port land would also create upstream jobs. It is rather difficult to reliably quantify these kinds of indirect and upstream jobs in a way that allows for a comparison of alternatives. One reason I’ve focused on the export terminals themselves is because the numbers are relatively clear.
Another factor to consider is the location of those upstream jobs — they’re mostly not in the Northwest. Residents of Whatcom County may decide they want the terminal jobs enough to put up with the noise and pollution, but the jobs created in Wyoming or elsewhere don’t really provide direct benefits to the port communities that get impacted by coal exports.
Finally, grain is pretty different than coal. Grain feeds people, while coal is probably the single biggest threat to the world’s climate stability. (Anyway, if someone tried to claim that grain export terminals are a great jobs strategy, it would be hard to take them seriously. The evidence says otherwise.)
If you believe that coal is the reason for climate change than I could agree with the arguements. But, I don’t, at least not as drastically as you may. Also again the arguements of pollution are blown out of proportion. You present the coal trains as this big coal dust storm coming down the tracks. That’s wrong. There is more ash blowing around from a volcano than there is coal dust blowing off a train. And these facilities will keep the coal blowing around to almost non-existent. Like I’ve asked before, what other “reasonable” replacement do we have for replacing coal fired electric plants? Considering coal is 55% of electric needs there isn’t really any. Which leads me to this question, what gives people in this country the right to say developing countries that they can’t use coal for electricity? Double standard don’t you think??
Eric de Place
I’m hardly consoled that coal train dust is preferable to a volcanic erruption. In any event, according to a study of rail coal dust conducted by the Virginia legislature, local residents describe “40-foot-high clouds of dust billowing upward” during so-called blow-out events, which actually does sound a lot like a storm. (See: http://leg2.state.va.us/dls/h&sdocs.nsf/By+Year/SD581994/$file/SD58_1994.pdf)
In terms of alternatives to coal, I think the answer is pretty clear: efficiency, solar, wind, tidal energy, natural gas, cogeneration, alternative heating & cooling systems… etc, etc. Maybe even nukes if we get desperate. We’ve got plenty of better options.
We don’t export that kind of coal out here. It is true that coking coal you can see for along time before train gets to you. And that type of product is shipped in tarped cars. And if all of these other options are options, then why do still use coal fort 55% of our electricity??