The Northwest is not exactly the heart of coal country. Over almost a decade of bruising disputes about whether to build export terminals, communities in Oregon and Washington roundly rejected every single proposal the industry brought forward. Clearly, the region sees coal as a dead end, most especially when it means mile-long trains bearing low-grade coal that would be shipped to power plants in Asia.
So when the long-shuttered John Henry No. 1 coal mine, located just a few miles from Seattle, filed papers in 2011 to reopen, it was no surprise that the move ignited ferocious objections from activists and leaders.
There’s no disputing that coal is an environmental menace but the proposal is also an opportunity to understand how coal figures into the Northwest’s modern economy.
“I am going to do everything I can legally and politically to prevent us from having to suffer the impacts from coal mining in King County,” vowed county executive Dow Constantine.
Yet the mine, if it ever does reopen, is not in the same league with the gargantuan proposals to export low-grade coal. The alleged merits of the project are certainly worth debating, and there’s no disputing that coal is an environmental menace but the proposal is also an opportunity to understand how coal figures into the Northwest’s modern economy.
Industrial manufacturing still requires small amounts of coal to produce things we need. Take cement for example: it’s the key to building cities, light rail lines, and roads, yet one metric ton of cement requires, on average, 140 kilograms of coal. That’s part of the reason why cement manufacturing is, at present, an unavoidably carbon-intensive process.
John Henry No. 1 coal would be earmarked mostly for export to a Canadian cement plant, where it would be used to fire kilns and serve as a feedstock. The remainder would be slated for a cement plant in Seattle, as well as to two unnamed facilities, “one lime kiln and one pulp mill,” in the region. Like cement, the nature of lime kilns and pulp mills, are similarly carbon-intensive and fossil fuel-reliant.
To better understand coal’s niche in the industrial economy, it’s worth taking a closer look at these plants.
Lehigh Cement Plant (Delta, British Columbia)
According to the mine’s Environmental Assessment, the company anticipates selling about 60 percent of its coal to the Lehigh Cement Plant in Delta, British Columbia. It is the largest cement facility in the Pacific Northwest with production of around 1.1 million metric tons annually, using probably 170,000 tons of coal. Lehigh, located on Tilbury Island near the mouth of the Fraser River, sources the raw materials for cement production from local extraction sites. For example, the Lafarge quarry on Texada Island, northwest of Vancouver, ships limestone in barges to the Lehigh plant. Texada Island is also a transfer terminal for coal mined at the Quinsam mine on Vancouver Island, which supplies coal to cement plants in the region.
Ash Grove Cement Plant (Seattle, Washington)
The John Henry mine would also supply coal to Ash Grove Cement Plant, located just south of the West Seattle Bridge, which produces around 750,000 tons of cement clinker annually. Like the Lehigh plant in British Columbia, Ash Grove sources most of its raw materials from Texada Island. (Ash Grove even owned its own limestone quarry on the island until 2010.) Ash Grove’s coal use fluctuates substantially, from over 90,000 to just 9,700 tons a year, a range partially explained by the plant’s willingness to experiment with a variety of fuel sources, including oil, natural gas, and even used tires.
Graymont lime kiln (Tacoma, Washington)
The Graymont plant in Tacoma’s Tideflats, appears to be the only existing lime kiln in the Puget Sound area. Like Lehigh and Ash Grove, barge shipments of limestone from Texada Island come to the Graymont facility for use in its coal-fired kiln. Graymont produces quicklime, often used in steelmaking, and hydrated lime, often used in sewage treatment. It’s unclear how much coal the facility burns annually, but assuming a production ratio similar to cement (and operating at full capacity), the 280 ton-per-day kiln likely consumes around 14,300 tons of coal each year.
It is not clear which paper mill in the region is the prospective customer for the John Henry mine, though it is not uncommon for these plants to burn coal. For example, WestRock, a packaging manufacturer and the owner of a big plant in Tacoma, uses coal at some of its North American operations. Paper mill operators generally prefer to use natural gas for energy, but the firms tend to select whichever fuel source is cheaper. [Ed. note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the WestRock mill in Tacoma and another one in Port Townsend use coal.]
Quinsam coal mine (Vancouver Island, British Columbia)
With or without the John Henry mine, the Northwest’s industrial users will likely continue to use coal. Both Lehigh and Ash Grove Cement plants primarily use coal from Vancouver Island’s Quinsam mine, though they are exploring alternative feedstocks. Quinsam has historically produced about 500,000 metric tons of coal annually. Low prices forced it to shut down in 2016, only to reopen a little over a year later under new owners, ERP Compliant Fuels, a company that bills itself as specializing in “rehabilitating blighted mine sites and planting trees to offset carbon emissions.”
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Fortunately, coal is no longer needed to generate electricity. That can be done often more cheaply—and always more cleanly—by using renewable energy. The sole coal-burning power plant in Washington, the Trans-Alta facility in Centralia, is scheduled to close by 2025, per state law. That plant is responsible for the vast majority of the coal use in Washington—on an annual basis, at least 40 times as much as the John Henry mine would produce. Just so, the biggest coal export terminals proposed in Washington, the Gateway Pacific project near Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk project at Longview, would have each shipped nearly 600 times as much.
Whether it makes sense to reopen the John Henry Mine depends on a range of factors, including negative impacts on local communities—like heavy truck traffic, noise, and pollution. And no matter how it is used, coal is a rotten deal for the environment: it is dirty, polluting, and harmful to the climate. Yet it is also a necessary ingredient for cement and a few other industrial purposes, enterprises that remain important to the Northwest’s economy.
The question John Henry No. 1 poses is ultimately a question of tradeoffs.
Ahren Stroming is a research contributor to Sightline. He’s a former policy analyst for the City of Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment and a current graduate student at the University of Freiburg in Germany.