This winter will be my third Olympics as a snowboard competitor on Team USA. I’m looking forward to Sochi and this is the time of year that I should be 100-percent focused on off-season training, but something in my hometown of Sandpoint, where my brother and I own a water sports business is taking place that, as a professional snowboarder and a local business owner, needs all of our attention.
American demand for coal is declining and as a result, the coal industry still plans to extract billions of tons of coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and ship it to markets in Asia via proposed deep water ports in Washington and Oregon, where it sells for prices up to seven times higher than in the U.S.
Each day, more than 50 mile-and-a-half-long trains, laden with Powder River coal, will travel from Wyoming and Montana, thundering through hundreds of rural towns to ports in the Pacific Northwest, making noise, clogging traffic and leaving arsenic and mercury laden coal dust in their wake. The near-constant stream of escaping coal dust imposes toxic environmental pollutants and a myriad of health risks in the communities through which the trains travel. There is also a huge price to pay in terms of depreciation in quality of life and property values for the citizens who live in those communities. Why should these communities be forced to devalue their quality of life for big coal to make a profit?
As a resident and local business owner, the proposed rail route hugs the shoreline of Lake Pend Oreille for 30 miles before crossing over the lake by bridge! Open rail cars spill coal and spew coal dust, which contains heavy metals that affect water quality and clarity. A derailment over or near the lake would be catastrophic for our water supply, the ecology of the lake and our ability to fish and swim in it.
As an environmentally conscious professional athlete, I feel this problem extends way beyond Sandpoint and the Pacific Northwest. Opening our deep water ports to coal markets in Asia would ensure that billions of tons of coal found in the Powder River Basin deposit would find its way to Asia’s coal-burning power plants and eventually into our atmosphere, accelerating climate change and its impact on all of us, everywhere. If that coal is burned, it’ll exceed the emissions of the Keystone XL pipeline. For those of us who make a living when it snows, or who live in tourist-dependent mountain communities, climate change is terrifying.
Sandpoint is just one community that would be affected by the coal trains in the Pacific Northwest. So this isn’t really a local problem, or even a regional problem. This is a national issue of concern. American capital should not be invested in infrastructure that will simultaneously damage local environments, create health hazards and make the global climate crisis worse. Instead of building the deep water ports, all that capital, effort and attention should be focused on developing affordable, clean energy projects and long term jobs, right here at home.
I’m supporting a project called “Momenta” — a documentary film being produced by my friends at Protect Our Winters, the global nonprofit fighting climate change on behalf of the winter sports community. Look for it this fall and get involved in the fight against the coal train.