Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Value of Nebraska Coal Trains and Panoramic Visions



By Bob Ferris

Sketch at a Rail Road Siding by Carlene Marie Ramus
Roughly five years ago I went to Nebraska for a series of job interviews.  Carlene came with me and we did some touring to check out the state and what could have been our future playground.  We saw waterfowl and prairies and even visited the birth place of Kool Aid—Hastings, Nebraska.  And on the last day we hit Omaha and did the touristy thing of visiting the top of the Capitol Building.

Now being from the West, the first thing that I noticed about Nebraska is that it is flat.  So it was a real treat that we were able to visit the viewing platform and get a panoramic view of the landscape before us.  But what we saw through the protective fencing of this high perch was what photographer and friend Paul Anderson  would so artfully capture from Blanchard Mountain south of Bellingham a year or so later: The massive size and length of a train loaded with Powder River Basin coal.

I am frequently asked why I jumped so hard and so quickly on the coal train issue in Bellingham and
The View from the Observation Deck in Omaha
why it seemed more like a personal crusade than a campaign to some observing the fray.  I did, in part, because I had already seen the beast in person earlier that year.  I knew its mass and mien and had waited at uncovered crossings at town after town and experienced its seemingly unending parade of intrusion and interruption.

Certainly, I knew about the issues of climate change, acid rain and the souring of our oceans as well as coal’s role in all those related global phenomena.  In fact, one of the first papers that I wrote at UC Santa Cruz as a re-entry student in the early 1980s was a 10-page briefing paper on acid rain for my National Environmental Policy class.  And I carried that coal awareness with me and expanded it through my work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation  and later when I launched the “Fossil Free by ’33” campaign at the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara.  All of this influenced me when I learned that coal trains could be in Bellingham’s future, but the Nebraska coal trains—like Paul Anderson’s powerful images—inspired me so much more deeply than any dry facts or abstract knowledge ever could.

Bill McKibben and I greet folks in Bellingham.
So today as I read the news that the Pacific Rim coal market is now less than half what it was when we started the coal train debate in 2010, I am grateful.  I am also grateful that folks were inspired to action by Paul’s photos, the timely visit to Bellingham by Bill McKibben (thanks too to Phil Aroneanu at 350.org) and the quiet and reasoned courage of Lummi people.  And I am grateful for that experience in Nebraska.

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