U.S. can export coal, but not the pollution, Chinese activist warns

This story was published in the Missoulian and Char-Koosta News.

Particulate matter is the bane of Missoula skies. On smoky days, like those of September 2012, tiny airborne particulates can reach levels higher than 200 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, particulates in U.S. airport smoking lounges hover around 190 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That would be a nice day in Beijing, China: Last January, the city’s pollution peaked at 886 micrograms per cubic meter.


China’s air pollution problem, as seen here in Beijing, has led the country to ban new coal-fired power plants in Beijing and two other cities.

The main culprit is burning coal.

On September 12, the Chinese government announced an action plan to improve what it called the country’s “grim” air pollution problem, which has “harmed people’s health and affected social harmony and stability.” The plan will ban new coal-fired power plants in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and reduce the percentage of the country’s energy derived from burning coal.

On the same day, almost 50 people gathered at the University of Montana in Missoula to testify against a controversial coal export terminal in Longview, Wash. It and another proposed dock near Bellingham, Wash., would together ship upwards of a million tons of coal—mostly from mines in Montana and Wyoming—to Asia each year. Washington state’s environmental review of the proposed ports will consider carbon dioxide emitted by burning the coal and the effects of trains carrying coal from faraway mines, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided in June that it will not consider such cumulative impacts.

But it’s those cumulative impacts that worry Lifeng Fang, an environmental activist from Beijing who spoke at the gathering in Missoula last Thursday. “Air pollution knows no boundaries,” Fang said, referring to the jet stream that carries pollution from China across the Pacific to the U.S. When coal is shipped to and burned in Asia, Fang said the pollution “just floats back.”

That was among the central findings of a seminal 2010 study titled “Global Sources of Local Pollution,” published by the National Academy of Sciences. The team of scientists wrote that “our atmosphere connects all regions of the globe, and pollution emissions within any country can affect populations, ecosystems, and climate properties well beyond national borders.” The neurotoxin mercury, for example, a byproduct of burning coal, “is truly a global pollutant,” the study says, and “intercontinental transport…clearly affects U.S. exposures.” Mercury levels are already high in Montana due to past mining activities.

Still, there’s the push for jobs and economic development. Last year, the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research reported that the state stands to gain about $55 million per year in increased tax revenue from the proposed Otter Creek mine in southeastern Montana, one of the mines that could feed the export terminals on the Pacific Coast. Coal companies such as Arch Coal, which leased the billion-plus tons of coal underlying the Otter Creek Valley from the state in 2010, hope exports to Asia can offset plummeting domestic demand largely caused by cheap natural gas.

But Fang says coal demand in China, which accounts for almost half of the world’s coal consumption, has waned and will continue to as the government enacts new measures to curb air pollution. He dismisses claims to the contrary as “myth peddled by a desperate U.S. industry.”

After exporting a record 125 tons of coal in 2012, U.S. government data show that coal exports have fallen off in 2013 and are expected to continue declining through the rest of the year and into 2014.

Missoula-based activist Janet McMillan was among those who last week at the University of Montana provided comment to be sent to the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the agencies review the proposed export terminal in Longview. “Let’s connect the dots,” she said, advocating to “leave coal in the ground.”