Anne Giles and Patrick Stormberg

Fossil fuel production is creating problems for low-income civilians. Low income is usually defined as less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (<2X FPL). The value of housing is decreased near rail-lines and refineries because of increased pollution, noise, smell, and increased traffic. Human exposure is causing increased health risks and large companies are making it nearly impossible for low-income families to have a voice or a way out. In numerous cases, the people are speaking out. 

Cherry Point

Low-income communities in Kent and Seattle would be disproportionately affected by coal train traffic coming from the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. Besides the many environmental and health concerns associated with the proposed terminal and increased coal train traffic, the authors point out that there will be very little positive economic development in King County compared to Whatcom County. 

Building a new coal export terminal at Cherry Point would result in very little economic development in King and Snohomish counties. This new terminal would create increased traffic delays, loss in property value along tracks, increased noise, and health effects to civilians (See Ferndale/Cherry Point.).

With the capacity to export roughly 54 million metric tons of coal per year, this terminal would be the largest facility on the West Coast. If BNSF Railway is unable to increase its capacity on its main north-south line through Puget Sound, the added 18 coal trains per day to and from Cherry Point could cause extreme delays.

Predictions show that by 2035, without rail system updates, delays could be nearly three hours long. Rail traffic is expected to increase regardless if this terminal becomes operational or not (Simpson Consulting). 

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	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}   Anticipated delays caused by Gateway Pacific Terminal train traffic. A new study by the Puget Sound Research Council expects 18 additional coal trains per day to and from the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal creating delays at rail crossings. (Credit: PSRC Studies)

Anticipated delays caused by Gateway Pacific Terminal train traffic. A new study by the Puget Sound Research Council expects 18 additional coal trains per day to and from the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal creating delays at rail crossings. (Credit: PSRC Studies)

According to spokeswoman Kathryn Stenger from the alliance, other studies have concluded the Gateway Pacific Terminal would economically benefit the entire region. Specifically, the Washington State Farm Bureau, Association of Washington Business, and the Washington State Labor Council (Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports).

In a separate economic study done in 2013, it was said that coal terminals would equal lower costs for the Washington Farm Bureau and new markets for other Washington Business (Simpson Consulting). It estimated a huge loss in property values along the tracks, where property values are already low. That, along with increased traffic delays at railroad crossings, is not ideal for business owners. People who live along the tracks, mostly low-income and minorities would suffer from the negative health effects of the coal dust from the passing trains. There would be increased noise too, which lowers property values. In May 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers cited Lummi treaty treaty rights to reject the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Alberta Clipper Pipeline

The Alberta Clipper pipeline expansion proposes to nearly double the pipeline’s capacity from 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 800,000 bpd (Enbridge). Refinery pollution “harms the often low-income and minority communities living nearby.” In anticipation of the increased capacity of the pipeline, refineries throughout the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Gulf Coast are increasing their capacity to process heavy crude oil. Residences near refineries have decreased value because of pollution and noise, and therefore are more affordable for low-income people.

The Alberta Clipper, also known as Line 67, currently pumps up to 450,000 bpd of tar sands crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. From the Canadian border, the pipeline traverses 327 miles across North Dakota and Minnesota to Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Superior, passing through state, tribal, federal and private lands, including prairie, forests, farms, rivers and lakes (Enbridge). 

(Credit: The Oil Industry)

(Credit: The Oil Industry)

Enbridge seeks to nearly double the pipelines capacity to 800,000 bpd, constructing two new tar sands storage tanks on the shores of Lake Superior. Increasing capacity would expose communities and tribes to tar sands’ full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications; potentially devastate cultural and historical resources; give the landlocked tar sands industry access to ports and enormous new overseas markets; and enable the massive, environmentally devastating tar sands growth planned by the industry.

Not only are communities near the pipeline and anyone with a stake in a clean and healthy environment having cause to be concerned about this pipeline, but Enbridge has a shocking history of spills.

The Alberta Clipper route crosses many special places, threatening critical drinking water sources and important places of cultural and ecological significance, including:

ŸThe Northern Divide, where waters flow north to Hudson Bay, south to the Mississippi, and east to the Great Lakes--

ŸThe Mississippi River, water source for 15 million people, which the pipeline crosses twice--

ŸMinnesota’s and the Great Lakes’ Wild Rice region, which is historically a vital part of Indigenous communities’ physical and spiritual sustenance and cultural heritage--

ŸFond du Lac, Red Lake Nation, and Leech Lake Indian Reservations, home to Minnesota Anishinaabe/Ojibwe who have lived in the Great Lakes region since before 800 A.D. and who today are committed to the preservation and protection of vast watersheds and ecosystems rich in biological diversity--

ŸChippewa National Forest, home to two of Minnesota’s five largest lakes; much of the region’s remaining wetlands and their unique plant and animal life; and the highest breeding population of bald eagles in the continental U.S.--

ŸLeech Lake, the third largest lake in Minnesota, famous for its fishing and ice fishing--

ŸMinnesota’s hunting lands, families have privately owned for many generations--

ŸGrand Rapids and Resort Country, the heart of Minnesota’s finest recreation and year-round vacationing, renowned for clear lakes and sandy beaches, fishing and swimming, fall foliage, and skiing.

Low-income people will suffer as a result of increasing the capacity of any pipeline. Refineries respond to the increased capacity by increasing their refinery production, adding more truck and train traffic to and from the refineries and more pollution and noise. People living near refineries are often low-income because of pollution, traffic and noise. Increasing capacity makes a bad situation worse for low-income people.

Fracking the Poor

Fracking is the hazardous practice of forcing high volumes of water and chemicals underground at pressures high enough to break up rock formations, allowing oil or gas to flow into a well (See Shale Oil). State oil and gas regulators, enforce no fracking-specific regulations, nor is any basic information such as where fracking is occurring, what chemicals are used, or where wastewater is disposed (The Gazette).

Five million residents who live within a mile of oil or gas well have a poverty rate of 32.5%, higher than that of the general population, and 69% are people of color. An analysis by FracTracker Alliance showed that 20% of Californians who live below the poverty line, which is more than 700,000 people who live within a mile of a well (The Gazette).

Homes near fracking can see their value drop. In Wise County, Texas, one property near fracked wells lost 75% of its value. In Texas, a 2010 study found that homes worth $250,000 or more and located within 1,000 feet of a drilling site saw their values drop by up to 14 percent. One realtor noted that the true loss is often far greater, and nobody wants to buy homes near gas wells, “not even for a 10 percent price cut.” Numerous banks have refused to offer mortgages for properties near fracked wells. IN 2012, Nationwide Mutual clarified that it would deny coverage for claims of damages due to fracking-related activities, citing a lack of “comfort level with the unique risks associated with the fracking process” (Guzik). 

Abre Conner, the staff attorney at Kern County’s Center on Race Poverty and the Environment, says this is a civil rights issue, and they are seeing the same types of issues and disparities they’ve seen with education and voting rights. California’s “fracking experiments” are poorly regulated and health impacts are largely unknown. More than 80% of fracked oil wells in California are located in Kern County, which is among the poorest counties in California with 22.5% residents falling below the poverty line. “When pitted against a deep-pocketed industry, low-income communities often lack the information, organizing power or resources to stop well from appearing in their neighborhoods” (Hedges).

Fracking leaves communities worse off than before. One study of 26 rural counties in the Western U.S. found countries with high rates of fossil fuel extraction fared worse than counties without in a host of areas including employment, income, and investment (Guzik). Additionally, factors are less-diversified economies and greater wage disparities mean these counties are not on the road to thrive in the future. Once the frack jobs are complete, the areas left behind can suffer from long-term poverty (See Boom & Bust EconomicsBoomtown Social Effects). With fracking, the booms may be short-lived since 98% of the work occurs in the period during which the well is prepped, drilled, and fracked. Of those employed by the industry, a high percentage comes from out-of-state since the industry requires specialized workers. Another blow comes to the fracked communities when these workers send portions of their earnings back home rather than spend it locally (Guzik).

Sitting Down with Centralia and Chehalis Residents

Mike and Marylea Coday are longtime residents of the Centralia/Chehalis region in Washington, and they live near the train tracks.  Mike Coday worked as a paralegal, and they are both very involved in spreading awareness of climate change. They spoke to me about the fossil fuels being transported by rail through Centralia and Chehalis and, specifically, how low-income residents are impacted.

Centralia has a population of 16,623 with 21.1% of people living in poverty (United States Census). Chehalis has a population of 7,261 with 15.2% of people living in poverty (United States Census). This is higher than the state of Washington (13.4%), and the nation (14.5%). Often there is a higher number of minorities living in poverty in many areas, however, Lewis County is 92.9% white.

The biggest concern to people living near the train tracks is the possibility of an oil train explosion. Mike noted “the explosion at Lac-Mégantic opened people's eyes to the risk.” After this disaster, Marylea says, “They were passing out maps saying 'Are you in the blast zone?' ''

The towns of Chehalis and Centralia are small communities that were built around the railroads, so “[they] go essentially right through the center of town.” The properties around the railroads “used to be prime real estate, and are still useful in terms of moving freight." However, the noise and pollution they create has lowered property values. Thus, housing near the rails is more affordable for lower-income people. This is true all around the country for the same reasons. Mike also says several nursing home and residential care facilities are located near the blast zone. In 2014, half of all adults age 65 and older had less than $22,248 in yearly income from all sources (Prison Rights Center). This is less than twice the poverty level, which is considered “low-income” in U.S. Census data.

The elementary and high school systems in Chehalis and Centralia are also built near the blast zone. “In Lewis County, where we're most familiar, there's not a lot of private school options, so I don't think that the dangers posed by the rail lines to school children really cut in any particular class line...all the students are at risk,” Mike says.

If there were an oil train explosion, the fire and police departments would certainly have a lot on their hands.  However, the fire and police stations are even at risk because they stand in the blast zone (within a mile of the tracks). Mike says “We could lose those immediately, we could lose our responders and the fire departments, a pretty interesting challenge.”

The fire departments have been an ally to the people in opposition to oil trains, for obvious reasons.  However, there is not much they can do if an explosion occurs near the fire station. The Chehalis Fire Department was very frank about this:

“Their emergency plan for a derailment or any kind of fire around the oil train in Centralia or Chehalis would be [to pull back and evacuate].  They will actually pull the first responders and their gear back out of the blast zone.” 

With the fire department having to evacuate their own station, their response to any other fires or people in danger could be crippled.

Business owners are also an ally in opposition to the oil trains simply because there are many small businesses within the blast zone. Also, long delays at the railroad crossings affect business. They are an unlikely ally because they “may normally be very pro-business,” as in, supporting the economic development that coal and oil processing and transportation brings to the region.  In this case they “switch sides and understand the environmental concern in this situation.”

TransAlta Centralia Generation is the name of the local coal plant, which ships in coal by rail. This wasn't always the case, though. “In the past we had coal mines…there's actually a coal mine where they mined their own coal in the neighborhood.”  But that has been shut down for over 10 years now.  Coal trains lose a certain percentage of dust while being transported which poses many health risks like chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, cancer, and death (Ahern). The City of Chehalis sweeps the streets and has to test the sweepings for mercury content, which has to be treated if too high. “So I think what you've got there aside from the risk of the oil trains and explosions is you've got a relatively high exposure level to the mercury from the coal dust/coal trains running through town, and also from the coal plant.”  Mike says the coal plant is likely to be phased out within the next 10-15 years, but “nobody wants to see the jobs go.”  For this reason, there is little opposition to coal transportation and processing in Centralia or Chehalis.

Additionally, there seems to be a lack of knowledge or awareness of the potential risks the use of fossil fuels pose to us. This is also true in Centralia and Chehalis. Marylea wondered when they were gathering people about the issue about a year ago, “I don't know if it's denial, or just, 'Oh, we gotta trust them.'” 

Mike, a paralegal, notes that organizing to stop the oil trains can also be risky legally. Although he thinks spontaneous, direct action might be the best thing we can do, he isn't sure if enough people really know how serious the situation is for it to work effectively:

"To the extent anything ever happens on the rail lines, it's gonna be largely spontaneous, driven by some event like Bill McKibben deciding it's time for him to tie himself to a rail line, and other activists thinking, 'Well if Bill's doin' it then we're doin' it too.' Because it provides the opportunity for spontaneous action across a large area… if that was to happen I think that would be pretty effective. But, you know, McKibben went after Exxon, stopped one pump from running a couple hours and got arrested, and it didn't lead to a spontaneous explosion of people saying, 'Oh, I'm gonna stop my local Exxon station.' So, I don't know if the population's really sorted out how serious the situation is, and how difficult it is to organize an opposition so that they can recognize the moment when spontaneous action is a good idea."

When something like this doesn't go well, Mike points out, the legal system can be very hard on the few people involved in the action. In some cases, activists are facing multiple federal felonies when considering direct action. “[It's] pretty effective. They pick out a few people and lean hard on them. We're all committed to our beliefs and principles but when the system decides to lean on you individually, it's gonna be a bad day.” However, there is hope that things can change regardless, especially when a proposed coal terminal is blocked, like the one and the port of St. Helens (Seattle Times). 

One potential “boom” to people that own low-value property near the rail lines is that if the oil and coal trains do indeed stop, their property value will potentially increase. “I guess the good part [in stopping the oil and coal trains], is the property value rebounds, because there is some charm to the sound of trains going by,” Mike says. “We think so anyway!” Marylea adds. “It's better than planes goin' overhead, you know, hearin' the train...”


Hedges, C. (2015, October 20). Death by fracking. Popular Resistance.  

Greenfield, N. (2015, August 13). Top 10 threats of the Tar Sands invasion. NRDC. 

Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports. (2012). IBEW Local 191. Gateway Pacific Terminal. 

Brownstone, S. (2015, October 20). Local activists take a new approach to stopping oil trains from running through Seattle. The Stranger. 

Enbridge Company. (2015). Alberta Clipper (Line 67) Capacity Expansion Phase II. - Enbridge Inc. 

Guzik, H. (2014, November 19). Fracking the poor: We know who lives near wells. We don’t know how it’s harming them. In These Times.

Jones, J. (2012, July 28). Factbox: Enbridge oil pipeline incidents. Reuters.

National Resources Defense Council. 

Pension Rights Center. (n.d.) Income of today's older adults. Pension Rights Center. 

Seattle Times Staff. (2013, May 8). Energy company drops plans for Columbia River coal terminal. The Seattle Times.

United States Census Bureau. "Chehalis (city) QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau."