Who knew there were any coal miners left around here?
“We’re not quite dead yet,” Dave Morris says, sounding like a character from an old Monty Python skit.
Morris lives on the bluff overlooking Alki in West Seattle. But he’s got coal dust in his blood. Both his great-grandfathers were Welsh miners who came here in the late 1800s, and the family business for more than a century has been to mine black diamonds from the foothills of the Cascades.
But this isn’t a nostalgia story. Morris, a mining engineer, is making a last stand for local coal. He’s announced plans to reopen a family mine in Black Diamond and start digging coal for the first time in King County in 15 years.
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There hasn’t been coal mining anywhere in Washington since 2006. The local history website historylink.org describes Black Diamond like this: “The coal mines have long since shut down, but the town lives on, rich in history.”
History is improbably coming back to life.
Short of maybe starting up a nuclear-waste dump, you couldn’t have picked anything more radioactive, I say to Morris.
“It’s become a dirty word, but we still need coal,” he said. “Drive over the West Seattle Bridge and look down and you’ll see a big pile of coal, for the cement plant there. They can either burn Canadian coal or my coal, but for the time being, they’re going to burn somebody’s coal.”
Morris’ plan to restart the John Henry Mine — it first ran from 1986 to 1999 — seemed to catch environmentalists by surprise. When the government asked for public input, only one comment came in.
But now that an environmental assessment has been published — indicating mining is likely to be approved — 1,400 comments have suddenly flooded in. Most of the protest was prompted by a liberal activist group in Seattle called Fuse Washington.
“To say that reopening a coal mine will have no impact on our community and our state is highly concerning to those of us concerned about our children’s future, our health, and our environment,” reads a protest letter from Fuse.
There are local issues, such as the potential for polluted runoff. But the protest is mostly about climate change. “Keep it in the ground” has become the rallying cry against any coal project because burning coal gives off more greenhouse gases than other energy sources.
For this reason, Stanford University last week decided to no longer invest in any coal companies. The environmentalist author Bill McKibben said it was fitting that Stanford, a school “at the forefront of the 21st century economy,” chose to “cut their ties to the 18th century technology of digging up black rocks and burning them.”
So should we cut our ties as well? Even if it means cutting off the last of a century-old family business, as well as forcing any coal-dependent industry left around here to just buy its fuel from elsewhere?
Morris, 69, said the mine has only six years of life left anyway. The amount he plans to dig each year is less than what passes through Seattle on coal trains right now every week. The carbon dioxide from burning his coal would be 180,000 tons a year — less than 2/10 of one percent of the carbon emissions annually in the state.
“I’m minuscule,” he says. “I’ll be the smallest coal mine west of Kentucky.”
All coal burning likely will be phased out around here as it gets replaced by cleaner energy sources.
But in the meantime, killing off this tiny mine seems like it’s more for symbolism than practical effect. The mine would probably have less global-warming impact than the new industry that has landed in Black Diamond — a huge master-planned development of more than 6,000 homes that will swell the town’s population from 4,000 to 20,000.
Being a “coal guy” and living in Seattle, Morris knows he’s an endangered species. He definitely gets raised eyebrows when he says what he does for a living. But he’s not shy about how he wants to go out.
“I know it’s about to end,” he said. “My sons have moved into different careers, but I’m proud of what my great-grandfathers, my grandfather and my father did. And now I’m going to see it through. This is going to be the last coal mining in this state, maybe forever.”
“Well at least until the next energy crisis comes around.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org