Washington state denies lease permit for proposed coal export terminal

If constructed, the terminal at Longview would be the largest coal export terminal in the country.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Washington state dealt a blow Tuesday to the last remaining coal export terminal proposed along the West Coast, throwing the viability of the project into question.

The state will not allow the developer to build the terminal’s loading docks on state-owned land, outgoing Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark announced, citing the developer’s failure to answer questions about the structure of the loading dock, as well as questions about the overall financial viability of the project. Last year, Arch Coal — a minority stakeholder in the project — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after slumping coal production.

The land is currently leased by Northwest Alloys, which had requested a permit from the Washington Department of Natural Resources to lease the land to Millennium Bulk Terminal, the developer behind the proposed export terminal.

The project has drawn stiff opposition from both environmentalists and some Longview residents, who criticize both the local impacts of the project as well as the larger affect the project might have on global climate change.

If completed, the project would bring 16 coal trains a day through the town of Longview and would add 37.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere over a 20 year period (roughly the same as adding 8 million passenger vehicles to the road in one year), according to the Washington Department of Ecology’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Columbia Riverkeeper Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky praised Goldmark’s decision, citing a history by Millennium of obscuring the true scope of the project. In 2011, a lawsuit brought against the project by environmental groups uncovered documents which 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.

“Commissioner Goldmark listened to the public and gave a firm ‘no’ to the largest coal terminal in the country,” Zimmer-Stucky said in a statement on behalf of the Power Past Coal Coalition. “Millennium started off misleading the public about the intended size of the coal terminal and later ignored Washington state’s request for critical information on their finances. Millennium failed to show they can protect public resources — the Columbia River. We ring in the new year with a major victory for the public, and showing that, once again the Northwest holds the line on dirty fossil fuels.”

Goldmark’s decision also drew praise from indigenous communities in the state, such as the Yakama Nation, which has opposed the terminal for years on the grounds that the project would infringe on their treaty rights to fish in the Columbia River.

“Commissioner Goldmark’s denial of the sublease permit today is indeed good news for the Yakama Nation and all tribes in the Northwest,” JoDe Goudy, chairman of Yakama Nation, said in a statement. “Today’s decision is indeed the final nail in the coffin of this project, but we must remained focus on projects that will continue to develop.”

Millennium, however, did not appear fazed by the state’s decision. In a statement, Millennium CEO Bill Chapman called the decision a “symbolic gesture” that “has no effect on the project.” Millennium already operates existing docks at the site, on a separate aquatic sublease. Those docks currently used handle bulk materials and some coal, though not for export.

According to Millennium, it has enough capacity under its existing leases to handle the coal from an expanded export terminal. The state, though, believes that without the additional space, the terminal will not be able to handle the expansion. There is no appeals process to the state’s decision, meaning Millennium would have to file a lawsuit if it wanted the sublease rejection overturned.

Goldmark’s decision is yet another blow to the future of fossil fuel exports along the West Coast, which was once viewed as the gateway between the coal mines of Montana and Wyoming and the coal markets of Asia. In 2010, the West Coast had six proposed coal export terminals, which combined could have handled 100 million tons of coal annually. But staunch community opposition, combined with declining coal consumption worldwide, have made those projects less and less viable in recent years.

Today, the Longview terminal is the last remaining coal export terminal proposed along the West Coast — making it a crucial target both for environmental activists opposed to expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and for fossil fuel and labor interests, who argue the terminal would bring much-needed economic stimulus to an area of Washington plagued with chronically high levels of unemployment.

Due to the scope of the project, the terminal would require approval at several levels — city, state, and federal — to ultimately move forward. The Washington Department of Ecology is currently working on the final version of its Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected to be released sometime in the coming year. If approved, the first phase of the terminal could come online as early as 2020.