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.

  • 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.