PORTLAND — Friends of the Columbia Gorge, in coordination with the Power Past Coal coalition and with volunteer participation of Portland-based Johnny Cash tribute band Counterfeit Cash, has released an online music video “Coal Train Blues.”
A musical take on a serious issue, the video addresses damage to gorge lands and water from current levels of coal transportation by rail and the threat posed to the Columbia River and gorge communities by pending coal export proposals that would transport up to 100 million more tons of coal through the gorge annually.
New lyrics written by Friends’ staff, transform the classic Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues” into a message about the dangers of current coal traffic, the greed and indifference of the energy companies backing three remaining coal export proposals, and the importance of defeating these proposals before coal trains, and the environmental and health ills they portend, become a constant gorge presence.
“These coal export proposals threaten the entire Columbia River Gorge and all the communities within it,” said Friends Conservation Organizer Ryan Rittenhouse.
The video also pays tribute to grass-roots activists who consistently packed auditoriums and expo centers in Oregon and Washington during public hearings in 2012 and 2013, and shows glimpses of Washington-side gorge communities whose residents live along or near the railroad tracks on which trains are currently carrying coal — and whose health and livelihoods stand to be further negatively impacted if the coal export proposals are approved.
“We’re scared to death of these trains,” said Sandy Wood, whose family has owned property near the Columbia River in eastern Clark County, Wash., since the late 1800s.
“For us, taking part in this project was an easy decision,” said Counterfeit Cash singer Daniel Coble.
Coble rejects the notion that Cash’s romanticism of trains might have extended to coal trains, as well. “Johnny didn’t romanticize coal. He sang songs like ‘Loading Coal’ (‘And I’ll sit around starvin’ ‘til I’m finally told/There’s a nickel more a ton for loadin’ coal’). Johnny loved trains, but he also loved wild, unspoiled nature.”
There are three proposals to build coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. All three involve transporting coal through the Columbia River Gorge by rail or barge from the open pit mines of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to terminals in Oregon and Washington for export to Asia. If coal export plans go forward, U.S. coal exports would double, resulting in 25 loaded coal trains, each more than one mile in length, moving through the Columbia River Gorge every day. Barge traffic on the Columbia River would double. Coal is transported in open-top cars and each car loses about one pound of coal dust per mile. The resulting toxic coal dust, in addition to diesel emissions from locomotive engines, pose a huge threat to air quality, water quality, plant and wildlife habitat and human health in the Gorge.