Thursday, June 27, 2013

Coal: “I Owe My Soul To The Company Store”

I grew up in Hawaii with no idea what I was singing about when rumbling along with Tennessee Ernie Ford in my deepest pre-teen bass voice to the lyrics of Sixteen Tons--

"You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store"

I still don’t have much of a first-hand experience with coal except for seeing some in a dusty basement in an old Portland rental. I’ve watched How Green Was My Valley and Coal Miner’s Daughter and used the expression “canary in a coal mine.”


I’ve heard of the somewhat surreal story by Lemony Snicket, The Lump of Coal, and pondered whether children in Europe who got a lump of coal at Christmastime were being punished or rewarded. On one hand, the Dutch tradition was punishment for bad behavior; on the other, coal was a valuable fuel that warmed you. Maybe punishment or reward depended on whether you were rich or poor.


This past week we had to think about the implications of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deciding that effects of climate change would not be included in the scope of the environmental impact study for the coal export facility proposed to be built in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve and pondered the implications of the multi-pronged avenues of the President’s policy to reduce the impacts of coal burning on climate change.

On the one hand we aren’t going to assess the impact on climate change of a major action regarding coal; on the other hand, we are going to take action on the impact on climate change by reducing how we and the rest of the world uses coal.

I was reminded that decision like the one announced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were long in the making and made at the highest levels of the Administration. In late February of this year, Bloomberg News reported in White House CEQ Meetings on Coal Projects Seen Indicating Major Policy Issues at Stake:


The White House Council on Environmental Quality has convened a series of meetings with federal regulators over the past nine months as the Obama administration shapes environmental impact analyses for the building of terminals to export coal to Asia. While CEQ downplays its involvement in the deliberations, a former CEQ official and other analysts suggest the White House role highlights the sensitive policy issues at stake, as the administration is under pressure to assess the possible climate change impact of burning U.S. coal in Asia.
At issue is how broadly the government should extend its analysis: whether to consider the impacts of each of the Pacific Northwest export terminals through narrowly tailored individual environmental impact statements or to assess their cumulative effects together, which would allow for a comprehensive analysis of possible climate change impacts.
Trains carrying coal north to British Columbia are the closest those of us in Western Washington get to coal these days. I think it would help make talking about coal much more real if, every time someone wanted to say something pro or con about coal, they had to hold a piece of coal in their hands. Sort of like a talking stick.

This past week, I suggested to an activist organizer she could use coal in a more tactile way but there was no easy way short of derailing one of those coal trains to get some coal to have and to hold. But we have Eocene rock formations in Western Washington out of which coal has been mined, giving us names like Coal Creek, Newcastle and Black Diamond.

I asked geologist Dan McShane if he’d written about the coal in his blog, Reading the Washington Landscape, and Dan generously shared some of the articles he’d written.

Dan’s article, Park Store - Sometimes Zoning Does Not Matter tells of, among other things, the 1890 opening of the Blue Canyon Mine located above the east shore of Lake Whatcom. The high-quality coal was barged to the north end of the lake, then sent by rail to ships on the Bellingham waterfront.

Coal in Whatcom County: Glen Echo Mine tells of the 1918 opening of the Glen Echo Mine on Anderson Creek.

Dan writes about coal mined in the 1870s in downtown Bellingham in A Patch Over Bellingham's Void and near the Bellingham Golf Course in When Bellingham Had Coal Piles.

Bellingham and Whatcom County’s coal, as well as King County’s coal, was small potatoes compared to the amount of coal coming via locomotives whose lights we see coming our way in the dark tunnel. There are a lot of folks more than happy to owe their souls to the company.

Me? I don’t sing Tennessee Ernie’s song any more. Nowadays, I think about who wins and who loses. Anytime I need to be reminded, it's time to listen up to John Prine singing Paradise --

And daddy won't you take me back to Mulenberg county
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay
Well I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in askin'
Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
--Mike Sato


(Note: Eric de Place at Sightline gives some real scary numbers about the amount of oil coming our way by rail, What You Can Do About Oil-By-Rail in the Northwest, to go along with my earlier blog, Greased Rails for Oil and Coal )

1 comment:

  1. Also see John Stark's Bellingham Herald story, "Beneath the city of Bellingham lie the memories of coal mines" http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2008/03/03/336698/beneath-the-city-of-bellingham.html Any other stories out there?

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