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Coal Port Investment Plan Stirs Controversy in Utah

Environmentalists and others are fighting a plan to ship coal mined in Utah by rail to Oakland for international export. (traveler1116/iStockphoto)
Environmentalists and others are fighting a plan to ship coal mined in Utah by rail to Oakland for international export. (traveler1116/iStockphoto)
May 18, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY - A $53 million plan for Utah to buy a share of a coal-export facility in California is sparking controversy over both funding for the deal and its potential impact on the environment.

The complex scheme would send coal mined in Utah by rail to a terminal in Oakland, where it would be shipped to China, Mexico and other foreign markets.

Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, says besides environmental concerns, the deal simply won't accomplish what they are trying to do.

"The legislature's trying to revitalize an industry that they're not going to revitalize," says Wagner. "I don't care if they throw $53 billion at this port, it's not going to bring those coal jobs back. Everybody's going in a different direction."

The state legislature approved the $53 million finance deal for a 49 percent share of the terminal, though it is to be repaid by the state's four coal-producing counties that say domestic markets for coal are drying up.

However, some critics call the state's funding deal more like money laundering than economic development.

Environmentalists say the plan would expose people living along the train's route and near the port to significant amounts of coal dust, which contains mercury and lead and can cause major respiratory diseases.

April Thomas, associate press secretary with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, adds that burning the coal overseas would just pump more carbon into the atmosphere.

"The climate impact of this would be enormous," says Thomas. "The amount of coal that would be shipped through this export facility in Oakland is basically equivalent to seven average-size American coal-fired power plants a year. Doesn't make a lot of sense to just take the coal that we're mining here and ship it abroad."

The controversial coal terminal operation is planned on the site of the former Oakland Army Base on San Francisco Bay.

Backers of the project are still looking for more than $150 million in venture capital to complete the project and get it up and running.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT