A controversial proposal to ship coal to Asian markets through a Longview export dock will get an airing Thursday in Tacoma, the last stop on a statewide tour.
The Washington state Department of Ecology and the federal Army Corps of Engineers have held four hearings on how broad to make the project’s environmental review. The fifth and final meeting is this Thursday from 4-8 p.m. at the Tacoma Convention Center.
The proposal to export as much as 44 million metric tons of Wyoming and Montana coal is drawing heavy public comment from both sides. Already, nearly 21,000 comments are in Ecology’s record, and past hearings in Longview and Vancouver, Wash., drew crowds of more than 1,000 people.
As outlined by Millennium Bulk Terminals – a project co-owned by Arch Coal Inc. of St. Louis, and Australian energy giant Ambre – the coal export facility would be built on 100 acres of a 416-acre site along the Columbia River that had been used by two aluminum plants and other industrial plants.
The more than $600 million facility could start sending one ship a day of coal via the Columbia River in late 2017 and that could expand by 2018 to two ships daily, according to Millennium executives.
If Ecology’s recent environmental scoping decision on a coal-export dock proposed for Whatcom County is a guide, the state would consider the global-warming and ocean-acidification impacts of burning the exported coal in China to generate electricity. The agency also could look at impacts of shipping coal by rail.
Few, if any, trains are certain to travel through South Sound in service of the Millennium project – unlike the rival Gateway Pacific project at Cherry Point. But some empty trains from Longview could pass north through Bucoda, Tenino, East Olympia, Tacoma and Sumner, according to officials at BNSF Railway, one of two shipping firms that would link Millennium to coal fields.
Beth Doglio, co-director of the Power Past Coal campaign created by several environmental groups, said she expects her group to concentrate at the hearing on the ocean and climate change aspects of coal exports.
“The main concern is ocean acidification. The Sound is in trouble; the more coal is burned, the more trouble the Sound is going to be in. I think it is as simple as that,” Doglio said Friday.
Robin Everett, an organizer for the Sierra Club, said ocean acidification (the process of lower pH levels and higher carbon dioxide intake into the ocean, threatening marine life) and the impacts of releasing mercury through burning coal are specific potential concerns for Puget Sound marine life. Coal-export opponents in the region have also voiced health worries about coal dust and traffic impacts of hauling coal by rail.
On the other side of the project are labor, business and agricultural interests that are making a jobs argument in favor of coal-export docks.
Millennium Bulk Terminal’s president and CEO, Ken Miller, says 1,350 temporary construction jobs and 135 direct, permanent jobs could be created if the project moves forward and opens in 2015. He said that 300 permanent jobs in Cowlitz County, which has recently experienced double-digit jobless rates, could be directly and indirectly attributed to the project.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who has convened a panel with state legislators to search for ways to reduce carbon pollution in Washington, has not said clearly which way he’ll go on the coal-exports issue. But he has favored a broad look at impacts, including looking at what the cumulative effect would be from several export docks in the region.
The Army Corps of Engineers has rejected that approach and now plans to issue its environmental scoping decision separately from the state. The Army Corps review is narrower and considers impacts more specific to the project location.
The tug of war over coal exports is happening at a time coal is losing favor domestically, and Washington has taken steps to phase out its last coal-burning plants at Centralia by 2025. Miller, the Millennium executive, says that as U.S. demand for coal shrinks, worldwide demand is predicted to grow.
“In the near term, there is more demand coming. Whether this coal comes from the U.S. or Indonesia or South Africa, Australia, Russia or Vietnam, the coal is going to get to its end location,” Miller said. “The point being there will be no net difference (in global emissions) if these projects go on or not.’’
Some local governments are on record in opposition to the project, including Thurston County’s three-member commission, which approved a resolution opposing coal exports in August 2012. Commission chair Sandra Romero noted that rail lines in Thurston County run within 200 feet of the main road in Bucoda, a small south county community.
“Since the coal is transported via open top rail cars without covers, Thurston County is at risk for contamination of its farmlands, forests, lakes, streams and rivers. Coal is a toxic material that contains heavy metals, mercury, arsenic, and lead. Exposure to these toxins in high concentrations is linked to cancer and birth defects,” Romero wrote in comments she entered into the record last month in Longview.
Bob Guenther, president of the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council, and other members of the business-backed Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports argue that coal mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana is cleaner burning than what China now uses. They also argue that exports will go through Canadian ports if Washington ports are not used.
“If we want to give up those jobs we can do it. China will burn that coal or they’ll ship it through Canada,’’ Guenther said last week. “I just don’t see the advantage to shutting down the opportunity to develop our ports for coal and other shipments.”
Environmentalists don’t buy the argument that stopping the exports out of Washington just sends them to British Columbia. They say that adding U.S. coal to the market could drive down prices, making it cheaper for China to rely on it to generate electricity.
The public has until Nov. 18 to submit comments on the Longview proposal. The final environmental review is expected to take up to two years, and Millennium is estimating an 18- to 24-month time frame. Construction would begin after any appeals are resolved.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688