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DeFazio Speaks Out on the Coal Debate

Congressman Peter DeFazio has weighed in on the coal export debate that is raging in the Northwest. He says, “I’m not a big fan of coal; I wish we didn’t burn coal at all.” However, he says that the Powder River Basin coal that would be exported via Coos Bay under the current proposal is a cleaner burning coal than what is being currently burned in Korea. “In this isolated instance, my understanding is this is to displace dirtier coal,” already burning in existing coal plants, he says, as opposed to proposals along the Columbia that would ship coal to new power plants in Asia.

The information that Korea is the country Coos Bay would be shipping to originally came out via partially redacted public records requests by OPB’s EarthFix. The port has since confirmed it is in negotiations with Mitsui, Metro Ports and Korean Electric Power Company. Eugene-based Beyond Toxics and the Sierra Club have been battling the port over releasing full public records on the coal export plan. 

DeFazio says when it comes to coal exports, “There’s really nothing to support or oppose. There are conditions under which coal can be exported, and what I can do to mitigate that potential problem.” DeFazio says he contacted the International Port of Coos Bay in January about fugitive dust and said, “I’d like to see negotiating totally enclosed cars which can’t leak dust.”

DeFazio says according to his research, “It is entirely feasible to ship coal in an enclosed car.” And he says the coal could be unloaded in an enclosed facility with scrubbers and misters to control the coal dust.

He says it’s unclear whether enclosed shipping can be required and that might require legislative action. 

Coal opponents are concerned not only about the effects of coal dust on Eugene as the trains go through town, but also on farms and natural areas the coal cars would pass through. DeFazio worked to secure millions in grant money and federal funds to restore the Coos Bay Rail Link that runs from Eugene to the coast. He says he helped secure the line from a hedge fund company that wanted to “buy it and rip it up.” The loss of the line meant lost jobs, DeFazio says, and the restored rail link diverts trucks from the roads.

He says at the moment the rail line would be totally incapable of carrying the proposed trainloads of coal and when asked if federal funds would be used to improve the line replied that “changes or improvements would have to be paid for by the shipper.”

DeFazio says that while Eugene is free to pass a resolution against coal trains through the city — the vote on a resolution was delayed until September — “but under the WTO, which I voted against, and the federal law commerce clause, we can’t ban the shipment of coal.”

DeFazio says that hazardous chemical loads, such as chlorine tankers that could “potentially kill thousands of people,” can’t be legally kept off the rail lines.

Some have speculated that DeFazio has taken more right-leaning stances on issues such as coal or logging because of the opposition he faces in the election from Tea Party Republican Art Robinson, but DeFazio says, “I don’t find any grounds for agreement with Art Robinson on anything.” He points to statements such as one printed in the November 1993 issue of Robinson’s Access to Energy: “Moreover, it now appears likely that the release of carbon through the burning of coal, oil and natural gas during the past century has already increased the total mass of plants and animals on the earth and contributed positively to the lush environment that we now enjoy.” DeFazio calls such comments “nutcase statements.”