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Coal Trains... Redux

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The creation story of heaven and earth, critters and humankind, found in Genesis 1 is rich and lyrical. I delight in the images, the rhythm, and the conclusion, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” 

The harmony I find in the biblical story was rocked again this spring with the announcement that for the first time in human history, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will pass 400 parts per million in much of the Northern Hemisphere in May. As citizens of the world, we know where this is going for 2013 and beyond because we lived it in 2012: stronger storms (Hurricane Sandy), droughts (Midwest crop failures), expanding forest fires (Trinity Ridge Fire in the Boise National Forest), and more. Climate change fostered by burning fossil fuels is underway and accelerating. 

So, what’s our piece of this global story as we delight in these spring days with lupine blooming, light green birch leaves bursting out, and new life all around? The answer: coal trains; the potential for lots and lots of coal trains.

Last year we were introduced to the full story. Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are hoping to move over 100 million additional tons of coal per year to Asia, principally China, through new coal terminals in Washington and Oregon. From the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to the coast, that’s over 60 additional trains per day, all passing through Bonner County and Sandpoint. Each train, over 100, open-top cars each, one and a quarter miles long, would be moved by four or five diesel engines. And the route? Much of it along 30 miles of shoreline directly adjacent to and over Lake Pend Oreille. 

I’m struggling with the potential impact locally. Increased diesel particulate contributes to increased severity and frequency of asthma attacks, rates of heart attacks, and risk of cancer. Coal dust is associated with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and environmental contamination (think the water we drink and the fish we eat) from the leaching of heavy metals. Then, there are the expected additional delays for emergency vehicles and our own movement across “at grade crossings” all along the rail routes.

I’m angry with the potential impact globally. Facilitating the shipment of coal to be burned in coal fired power plants in China, when the U.S. is consciously reducing the number of such plants here, defies my sense of logic. I know the impact on climate change as carbon dioxide levels rise higher and higher though the years. And I know it takes just 10 days for the pollutants from East Asia to waft back across the Pacific to our Northwest region.

“…and, indeed, it was very, very good.” I can’t imagine the Divine blessing the continuing degradation of the air, the water, the species (human, animal, bird, and aquatic) of creation. In my mind, I hear the voice of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop from South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner: “Climate change is a deeply moral issue… Here in Africa we see the dreadful suffering of people from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods, even though they have done nothing to cause the situation.” 

As Bill McKibben, environmentalist and Methodist Sunday School teacher, reminds his American audiences, we’re “in the relatively small subset of the Earth’s population that both knows what’s going on and has some kind of leverage to bring to bear on the situation (climate change).”

In my faith walk, it’s always been about the challenge of translating convictions into action.

And behind these contemporary voices of Tutu and McKibben is the wisdom of the Book of James (James 2:17), “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” 

What’s the summer hold for me? Exploring solar power for our home. Deepening my knowledge of climate change. Using my voice and my pen to stop the expanded export of Powder River coal to China. And, traveling to Washington DC to urge our Congressmen to do the same.

What about you?

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Gary Payton Gary Payton is on a Faith Walk that takes him to Russia, Eastern Europe and Sandpoint, Idaho

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Environment, Garys Faith Walk, coal trains

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