Cowlitz County and the Washington State Department of Ecology have finally released the draft of their long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement regarding a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington. Located just two hours north of Portland, Oregon, along the Columbia River, the proposed terminal would ship a maximum of 44 million metric tons of coal from the Western United States each year to markets overseas, making it, if built, the largest coal export terminal in the country.
Proponents have championed the potential economic benefits of the $680 million project, arguing that it would bring long-term jobs to an area of the state historically plagued by above-average unemployment rates. Additionally, they argue that the terminal would help make United States coal more competitive by opening up Asian markets.
Opponents of the project, however, argue that it would be extremely detrimental to both the local environment and the global climate. They cite issues such as increased train traffic, coal dust, and the eventual burning of the coal — which would result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions — as reasons why the state should reject the project.
That increase in greenhouse gas emissions will be substantial, the draft EIS found. The report estimates that, between 2018 and 2038, the total additional greenhouse gas emissions created by the project would be 37.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — roughly the same as adding 8 million passenger vehicles to the road.
The EIS highlighted a range of other impacts too. Based on its location, the EIS stated that the noise from the rail cars delivering coal to the export terminal would likely have a disproportionately high impact on low-income and minority communities, which are clustered near the proposed terminal spot. The EIS also found that the project could have an adverse impact on the physical or behavioral responses of fishes, potentially impacting tribal resources, though the statement suggests that these impacts would likely be small.
Likewise, the project would impact rail transportation by potentially overloading the existing capacity of BNSF railways — as proposed, the project would require an additional 16 trains per day. The statement estimates that, if constructed as proposed, the project would increase the chance of rail collisions by 22 percent throughout Cowlitz County and Washington. The increased rail traffic would also likely impact the average driver, as an increase in train activity would cause road delays at between four to six crossings throughout town, especially during rush hour. The statement also notes that, while the chances are low, increased boat traffic to and from the export terminal would raise the chances of a significant vessel incident, and there are no mitigation measures that could eliminate that chance entirely.
The project is one of the last remaining proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest — of six previously proposed export terminals throughout Washington and Oregon, only the Longview project, and another proposed terminal in northern Washington at Cherry Point, remain.
The coal industry is looking to export terminals like these as a lifeline for their declining industry — as coal consumption in the U.S. continues to decrease due to low oil prices and domestic policies, coal companies hope they can find willing buyers overseas, especially in Asia. In addition to helping add more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, coal export terminals would require more coal-packed trains to travel from the central United States to the coast, creating a potential public health hazard from coal dust and derailments or spills.
Millennium Bulk Terminals, the company behind the project, first submitted a proposal to build a coal export terminal in Longview in 2009. The initial proposal was unanimously approved by the Cowlitz County commissioners, but Millennium was later forced to withdraw that proposal when internal documents, made public through discovery related to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, revealed that the company intended to ship 60 million tons of coal annually through the terminal rather than the 5.7 million tons of coal that it had originally applied for.
Millennium Bulk Terminals reapplied for permits to build a coal export terminal in February of 2012, and the proposal subsequently received over 217,500 comments from the public. Many of those comments asked that the Washington Department of Ecology, in its Environmental Impact Statement, consider the climate impacts of the project. A draft of the statement was originally scheduled to be released in November 2015 — some three years after the second proposal was filed — but was pushed back due to both late-filings from Millennium and the need for more analysis on the part of the Department of Ecology.
Despite these setbacks, Millennium Bulk Terminals seem convinced that the project is set to move forward.
“This major milestone moves us one step closer to creating family-wage jobs in Longview, while meeting Washington’s strict environmental standards. We will build this project right and honor the longstanding support we have earned from labor and the Longview community,” Bill Chapman, CEO for Millennium Bulk Terminals, said in a statement following the release of the draft EIS.
Environmental groups, however, viewed the draft EIS differently.
“The review’s findings confirm what the public has said for over six years: This project has significant, unavoidable impacts — from greenhouse gas emissions to traffic delays,” Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Power Past Coal Coalition, said in an emailed statement. “The Dept. of Ecology acknowledges that moving over 44 million tons of coal in uncovered trains and stockpiling it along the Columbia would harm people’s health and the river. The bad news is the review falls short, relying on unproven mitigation. Now is the public’s chance to weigh-in to say no to coal export in Washington.”
The draft EIS will be open for public comment through June 13. Following public comment, the Department of Ecology will issue a final EIS, which will be used by local and state agencies in their decision to approve or deny the project. The Department of Ecology estimates that the final EIS will be released sometime in 2017. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently working on a separate environmental assessment of the project, though that assessment will be narrower in scope and will not consider the impact of coal burned as a result of the project. Since the scope of the project is so broad, the project will require final approval from a number of agencies at the local, state, and federal level.
This post has been updated to include a statement from the Power Past Coal Coalition. A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the greenhouse gas equivalent of the terminal over a 20-year period would be 80 million. That figure is instead 8 million. ThinkProgress regrets the error.