Another Expansive Look at Coal Exports – For Longview Terminal, Ecology Will Consider Coal-Burning in China

Business, Labor Groups Say State Plan Stacks Deck Against Project – Mirrors Similar Environmental Review for Bellingham-Area Terminal

By Erik Smith, February 13, 2014, Washington State Wire

There were no surprises Wednesday as the Department of Ecology announced its plans for an environmental review of a proposed Longview coal terminal – a broad, sweeping report that encompasses the effect of coal-burning in China, and which business and labor groups complain stacks the deck against the project.

 

In its unprecedented scope the state’s review of the proposed Millennium terminal will mirror the effort now under way to assess the environmental impacts of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham. It is the result of a highly organized campaign by green groups and their allies against the burning of fossil fuels. The state’s environmental impact statement will assess a broad range of issues that normally are not considered when a major industrial project is proposed, and which no project developer may be able to adequately address.

 

That the two projects are immense is unquestioned – together they would increase American coal exports by 40 percent, nearly 100 million tons annually, at a time when climate-change concerns are prompting efforts to reduce the burning of coal in this country. The hitch is that neither project is likely to increase the net burning of coal worldwide, as Wyoming and Montana mines have other outlets at ports in Canada, California and the Gulf; China’s fast-growing coal demand might also be met by dirtier sources of coal in other countries, meaning that a negative decision in this state could actually mean greater pollution worldwide.

 

At a news conference Wednesday, Ecology officials said they don’t know how that issue will be considered in their report. But their silence on the point can be taken as a clear indication that the state will be considering a non-unique disadvantage in isolation. Said Sally Toteff, southwest regional director of the Department of Ecology, “It is a question I hear about, and what I want to point out that we are at the very beginning of the study phase for looking at these questions for the Millennium bulk terminal proposal.”

 

It is a decision that biases the outcome from the start, complain business organizations and labor groups. They say the hard line taken by Washington regulators might be used against any politically unpopular industrial project that meets organized opposition from environmental groups. “This decision sets an unnecessary precedent for manufacturers that could make it harder to obtain approvals for almost every product we export, from grains to airplanes,” warned Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

 

A Highly Organized Campaign

 

The $643 million Millennium Bulk Terminal would occupy a former Reynolds smelter located at the Port of Longview. When fully developed, the port would be capable of shipping 44 million metric tons of coal annually; other portions of the site might be used for agricultural and other bulk commodities.

The $643 million Millennium Bulk Terminal would occupy a former Reynolds smelter located at the Port of Longview. When fully developed, the port would be capable of shipping 44 million metric tons of coal annually; other portions of the site might be used for agricultural and other bulk commodities.

Washington’s approach to the environmental review is a matter of high public controversy. A negative review could give the green-minded administration of Gov. Jay Inslee political cover to deny a permit on environmental grounds. Inslee’s position is no secret: He has made climate change a singular focus for his administration; with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber last spring he wrote the Obama Administration urging a shutdown of American coal exports.

 

In addition to reviewing the global environmental impact of coal exports from Washington, the study will also assess potential impacts of train shipments of coal well beyond Washington’s borders, from the Midwest to the coast, as well as the potential impacts of Pacific shipping. Though the state has never conducted environmental reviews so broad in scope, Ecology officials said at Wednesday’s news conference that the decision is justified by a passage in the state administrative code. Ecology regulation stipulates that “lead agencies” conducting environmental reviews are required to assess environmental impacts beyond their borders.

 

But the breathtaking sweep of Washington’s approach already has caused a well-publicized divorce with federal regulators, who maintain that such reviews should examine only the direct impacts posed by a particular project. The Army Corps of Engineers, which had been planning to write joint environmental statements with Ecology on the two terminal projects, announced in September that it would conduct its studies separately. Already it has said it will conduct a narrower review of the Gateway terminal; a decision on Longview has not yet been announced. By going it alone with an expansive review, Washington risks lawsuits from coal-producing states that its effort constitutes an infringement on interstate and international trade, a matter reserved by the U.S. Constitution for the federal government. The states of Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming have already put the state on warning.

 

At Wednesday’s news conference, state officials said they were persuaded by an unprecedented outpouring of public comment orchestrated by environmental groups. Some 215,000 public comments were received during the 95-day period during which the state solicited public testimony. The vast majority of them were form letters and emails coordinated by greens.

 

Greens Hail Decision

 

The Sierra Club’s Power Past Coal Campaign touted the announcement as a major victory. “It’s great to see the Dept. of Ecology and County Cowlitz using their authority to raise questions about the vast threats to coal exports,” said Gayle Kiser, a Longview resident and president of Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, a local organization that is part of the environmental coalition. “This broad scope of the environmental and health review by the agencies reflects our Northwest values and common sense. The entire state of Washington, including Cowlitz County residents, would face impacts from coal export. Coal export would pollute our air and water, and halt the flow of traffic in our towns. Taxpayers and local governments can’t afford to put the blinders on for coal export; our agencies cannot either.”

 

While climate concerns are the central issue for environmental groups, the battle has been waged on a second front – the potential impact of train traffic as it passes through communities statewide. The Longview project would generate 16 trains a day; the Cherry Point project 18. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway notes that train traffic generated by the projects would not reach the level seen in 2006, at the height of the national construction boom, when not a peep of protest was heard. Should Washington say no, a fair amount of coal traffic still might pass through Washington on its way to Canada. But the campaign against coal has generated alarm in communities all along the main line, about traffic tie-ups and the possibility that windblown coal dust from hopper cars might settle along the tracks.

 

“The Spokane City Council previously unanimously voted to have our voice heard in the building of coal export facilities and its great news that our state agency listened,” said Spokane city councilman Ben Stuckart. “Spokane has much to lose, and little to gain by allowing all these new coal trains through our town. Such an increase would harm our air quality, transportation systems, and emergency response. Today is a great step in the right direction for Spokane.”

 

Dismay From Industry, Labor

 

Tom Davis of the Washington State Farm Bureau speaks at the kickoff of the Keep Washington Competitive coalition. With him are Mike Elliott of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, David Myers of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council and Gary Chandler of the Association of Washington Business.

Tom Davis of the Washington State Farm Bureau speaks at the kickoff of the Keep Washington Competitive coalition last week. With him are Mike Elliott of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, David Myers of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council and Gary Chandler of the Association of Washington Business.

The decision, though hardly unexpected, brought deep dismay from business and labor organizations. Last week they announced creation of a Keep Washington Competitive coalition to highlight what they see as a threat to international trade. Washington’s position sets a dangerous precedent that puts future industrial development at risk, they maintain; projects like the coal terminals could be scuttled at the whim of state regulators. Similar efforts could be used to shut down timber or agricultural exports, they say.

 

“Altering Washington’s long-standing and effective process for trade-related projects increases uncertainty for businesses and communities, and will complicate major trade investments at a critical time for our region,” said Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business. “Businesses want certainty. They want clear guidelines so they can make the appropriate investments of time and resources. Unfortunately, this decision leaves much in doubt. Which elements of a project will be judged?” he asked. “Washington state is the most trade dependent state in the nation. Having a reliable, predictable system is critical to our state’s ability to be competitive.”

 

The coalition includes significant participation from labor unions, which see the decision as a threat to lunchbucket jobs issues. Though normally allied with environmental groups on progressive themed issues before the state Legislature, the coal-port issue has caused a deep split. The Washington state Labor Council has twice endorsed the Cherry Point project.

 

“Washington workers stand to lose thousands of good, family-wage jobs if the state cannot provide established guidelines in a timely manner to those who want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars here,” said Mike Elliott, Washington State legislative spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “If investors determine the state is going to pick and choose which projects will receive these expanded reviews, they will turn to other states and countries that already are streamlining their processes to foster a friendly investment environment,” he said.

 

“This decision will harm our workers, our economy and our reputation as a world trade leader.”

 

A second organization, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, whose membership includes coal companies, rail interests and other parties directly affected by the projects, said Washington’s position will discourage new business investment and warned of constitutional challenges.

 

“The Millennium terminal represents an opportunity in Southwest Washington for expanded international trade,” said Ted Sprague, President of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council. “Forty percent of Washington workers depend on trade for a living and this project will add to that significant number. The state’s decision today threatens to put our future on hold. This project has been delayed two years already and now the Department of Ecology has changed the rules and drastically expanded the review process.   We’ve got to do better if we’re going to improve our economy.  If we are going to expand our economic base we need to be timely and consistent in our permitting process.  Adding unnecessary and overly burdensome ‘cradle to grave’ permitting will put a chill on future economic development projects in our state.”

 

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