Corps Says It’s Not Authorized For In-Depth Coal Study

By Erik Olson, March 26, 2013, Longview Daily News

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unlikely to conduct a massive, comprehensive environmental review of proposed Northwest coal terminals, but agency officials have not ruled out a smaller review of three Columbia River projects.

Officials at the corps’ Washington, D.C., office said Tuesday a so-called “programmatic” review is outside the agency’s authority, which is limited to granting permits for waterfront projects.

The stance is a setback for environmentalists and Govs. John Kitzhaber or Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington. Both have asked for a review of the cumulative effects of building the coal terminals.

Avoiding a broad study would save coal terminal developers, including three on the Columbia River, months if not years of time to acquire permits.

The corps has not developed a program specifically for permitting coal terminals, “so no such ‘programmatic’ study would be appropriate,” Doug Garman, a Washington, D.C.-based Corps spokesman, said Tuesday in a written statement.

“Programmatic” environmental studies generally have been limited to analyzing the effects of policies and regulations that affect broad geographic areas, such as the Clean Water Act. Rarely, if ever, have they been required to scope out the cumulative impacts of several individual projects.

A March 18 report from the energy analyst firm SNL Financial says corps officials have expressed doubt they would conduct the programmatic review. Virginia-based SNL based its reports on documents obtained from the White House Council of Environmental Quality.

The corps is reviewing applications submitted for three Pacific Northwest coal docks: Millennium Bulk Terminals west of Longview, Australia-based Ambre Energy’s Coyote Island Terminal near Clatskanie and the Gateway Pacific project near Bellingham.

In addition, Texas-based Kinder Morgan plans to file permit applications next year to build a terminal at Port Westward in Columbia County. A proposed Coos Bay, Ore., terminal is having financing problems and could be dead

Corps officials said they are still considering an areawide review, limited only to terminal proposals within the same watershed.

Garman said the corps’ Portland and Seattle districts are evaluating whether this cumulative study would be necessary on the Columbia River.

Millennium and Ambre officials have said they will abide by whatever rules the corps determines.

Business and labor coal supporters say they worry additional studies of greenhouses gas emissions from burning coal overseas could extend beyond the coal industry and thwart efforts by other industries to export products through Oregon and Washington.

“Imposing additional, unwarranted and unnecessary regulatory burdens in an attempt to derail a particular project would set a dangerous precedent that will jeopardize our state’s economic future,” Washington Association of Business President Don Brunell said in a prepared statement.

Coal opponents are continuing to push for larger studies, arguing the problems of train congestion and coal dust would be multiplied by several terminals.

“Coal export would harm our air, water and climate, so it makes sense to evaluate the impacts,” Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Hood River-based Columbia Riverkeeper, said in a written statement.

On Monday, governors Kitzhaber and Inslee jointly sent a letter urging the Obama administration to conduct a comprehensive review of a possible expansion of the coal industry, including the effect of releasing greenhouse gases burning U.S. coal overseas. The governors stopped short of opposing the coal docks.

Jamie Smith, an Inslee spokeswoman, said the governor has not heard any final decision from the Corps.

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