Proposed Washington coal terminal would bring increased carbon emissions and elevated cancer rates

Final environmental study for proposed Washington coal export terminal found major risks to public health, the environment.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The coal industry’s last hope for exporting its product from the Pacific Northwest runs through the town of Longview, Washington — a path that seems increasingly difficult after the state Ecology Department’s final environmental impact study found that the project would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities that live near the proposed site.

If constructed, the terminal would be the largest coal export facility in the country, with the capacity to handle 44 million tons of coal annually. That coal would be brought by rail from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, stored in an area roughly the size of 50 football fields at the terminal itself, and eventually shipped overseas to markets in Asia.

The terminal was proposed over a decade ago, and has faced stiff opposition from local environmental groups, tribal nations, and communities along the proposed rail route.

The study found that the terminal would add two million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, calculated from the fuel needed to ship the coal as well as resulting emissions from burning the coal in Asia. That’s roughly the same as emissions from 422,467 passenger vehicles driven for an entire year.

In the draft environmental impact statement published last year, the Department of Ecology found that over a 20-year period, the coal export terminal could be responsible for as much as 37.6 million additional tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Attorneys from EarthJustice criticized both Department of Ecology studies in a statement, arguing that they have severely underestimated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project. Still, they said, the studies document a host of unavoidable consequences associated with the terminal.

“Even with these failings, [the final study] nonetheless documents a host of totally unacceptable impacts that by themselves should easily trigger denial from the state and local regulatory agencies,” Kristen Boyles, staff attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement. “It’s time to move on.”

Beyond the climate impacts associated with the terminal, the study found that it would also pose a risk to the public health of communities both in Longview and along the proposed shipment route. The terminal would add approximately 16 coal trains a day to local lines, and the resulting increase in diesel emissions would raise cancer risks in the Highland neighborhood of Longview by 10 percent. Highland, located near the train tracks that would carry coal to the terminal and fairly close to the terminal itself, is a low-income and predominantly minority community — according to state models, the maximum increased risk of cancer for that community would be 50 for every million.

“This impact would constitute a disproportionately high and adverse effect on minority and low-income populations and would be unavoidable and significant,” the study read.

The study also found that increased rail traffic could cause severe traffic problems throughout the town of Longview, especially in the Highland community. If steps were not taken to address the potential for vehicle delays at train crossings, the report found, it would also disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities.

“Toxic diesel emissions, coal dust, and delayed emergency response threaten all of us, but especially young children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions,” Stephen Chandler, a hematologist and doctor of internal medicine who lives in Longview, said in a statement. “Low-income and frontline neighborhoods will be hit hardest by increased cancer risks, as was confirmed in the document released today. As a cancer doctor, I’m acutely aware that we must prevent what we cannot cure; we simply cannot allow this dangerous project to proceed.”

The study did find that coal dust from the trains would not exceed air-quality standards for human health. Still, environmental groups worry about the harm coal dust could cause for both communities that live along the train routes and bodies of water near the proposed route. Environmental groups already brought charges against BNSF Railway in November for violating the Clean Water Act by allowing coal dust from trains to pollute local waterways. The case settled without BNSF admitting to any violations, but the company did agree to pay one million dollars to fund environmental projects in Washington state, as well as study the feasibility of covering coal trains to prevent pollution from dust.

The Department of Ecology reportedly received over 267,000 public comments regarding the proposed Longview terminal, the most in state history. The terminal is the only remaining proposed coal terminal along the West Coast, a vestige from a push by coal companies in the late 2000s — in 2010, there were six proposed facilities stretching through Washington and Oregon.

And while the Longview project is far from dead, it has encountered a number of problems on the road to approval. Earlier this year, Washington’s outgoing Public Lands Commissioner, Peter Goldmark, announced that the state would not allow the developer to build the terminal’s loading docks on state-owned land, citing questions about the projects long-term financial viability.

The demise of the proposed coal terminals has coincided with several high-profile bankruptcies in the coal industry. In 2015, Arch Coal, the second-largest coal company in the United States and a minority stakeholder in the project, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after slumping coal production.

“The coal industry cannot be revived. It’s being replaced across the country and around the globe by renewable energy,” Chris Hill, a board member of Longview Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, said in a statement. “Longview needs real economic solutions, not a dead-end industry that pollutes our air and clogs our railways.”

Still, with the coal-friendly Trump administration now at the helm of the federal government, the company behind the terminal remains confident that the project will be completed.

“Millennium is committed to meeting Washington’s high standards for environmental stewardship and this thorough study shows in excruciating detail how those standards will be met,” Bill Chapman, CEO and President for Millennium Bulk Terminals, the company behind the proposed terminal, said in a statement. “We’re expecting to see exceptional support for a project which will bring much needed family-wage jobs to our community.”

The project is now open for another period of public comment. Millennium Bulk Terminals has already announced that they will question the state’s method for calculating greenhouse gas emissions associated with the terminal.

The Army Corps of Engineers will release a separate environmental study of the project later this year. Ultimately, as many as 10 agencies — both at the state and federal level — will have a say in whether or not the project is completed.