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The elephant in the room on the Longview coal port

With an undereducated population and a struggling economy, Longview would seem an easy sell on a new coal port. But there's a big problem looming.
 The proposed coal terminal would be built  on the site of an old Reynolds aluminum plant.

The proposed coal terminal would be built on the site of an old Reynolds aluminum plant. Photo: Floyd McKay Photo

The magic number for Millennium, the giant coal terminal proposed at Longview on the Columbia River, is not 44 million — that’s how many tons of coal would be shipped annually. It's 432. As in State Route 432, or at least the stretch of highway where traffic crossing the Lewis & Clark Bridge merges with the railroad tracks and streets that serve the busy Port of Longview and assorted major industries.

“There’s no way you can put coal trains through Longview without fixing SR 432,” is the blunt assessment from Gary Lindstrom, marine consultant and former Port of Longview marketing director. “It’s a nightmare to me.”

Mention SR 432, otherwise known as the “432 Mess”, to anyone in town and eyes roll and heads shake. Log trucks from Oregon’s Tillamook Forest rumble across the bridge en route to Weyerhaeuser’s export dock and Longview Fibre’s paper plant and mix with rail cars to create a 2,800-vehicles-per-hour jam, according to a 2008 study for area governments.

The fix — new bridge ramps that overpass a relocated rail line, renovated surface streets and a new railroad bridge — will cost anywhere from $150-$200 million, depending on who's doing the estimating. And that doesn't account for the prospect of 16 new coal trains a day. Everyone recognizes the SR 432 problem, but other than the outspoken Lindstrom few are willing to confront the elephant in the room: Big-time public investment will be needed if Longview goes for coal.

Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) is one of two big coal ports proposed in Washington state. The other is Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) north of Bellingham, now in environmental review. Public meetings begin Sept. 17 for MBT. Five will be held, the first in Longview. For both terminals, the results of environmental studies go to the local, state and federal agencies charged with issuing the actual permits for construction. The entire process will last at least two to three years.

Operationally, Millennium differs little from Gateway Pacific. Both would accept Powder River Basin coal from BNSF Railway trains; store it in huge, 60-foot-high stacks and load it onto ships bound for Asia. GPT can accomodate the massive Capesize ships, the largest transport vessels in the world. Millennium is limited to the smaller Pananax variety (about 850 a year) because of the Columbia River’s depth. But in terms of the site characteristics and community politics and demographics, the two terminals are very different in some critical ways.

Longview is a no-apologies, industrial town with persistent unemployment and a poorly educated and aging workforce. The Millennium site, formerly Reynolds Metals, is a 416-acre brownfield contaminated from decades of aluminum manufacturing that cries out for redevelopment. The site, long a home to heavy industry, has no significant wetlands or endangered plants or animals to stand in the way of its conversion to a coal export terminal.

When Reynolds Metals left town in 2000, it “created a big vacant hole,” says Jeff Washburn (below), who heads the Building and Construction Trades Council. “Things were slow before the [2008] recession.” Some would date Longview's economic slump back even farther — to the 1980s. Either way, says Washburn, the Longview economy has “really mellowed out” in recent years. Translation: Jobs have been scarce.

It's no surprise then that the 270 longshoremen from the Longview local and the hundreds of construction workers who would build the new coal terminal see the decision about Millenium as a no brainer: It's all about jobs. With unemployment lingering above 10 percent, Millennium promises 135 on-site positions and another 165 in rail and shipping.

Millenium critics say sacrificing a 416-acre waterfront site for a mere 135 jobs and a pile of coal is a bad bargain. Clear the site, clean up the brownfield and look for more intensive uses, argues John Green, a retired businessman who moved to Longview in 2002. That's what Bellingham is doing with a former mill site on its waterfront. But neither Green nor anyone else has any clients in hand.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 30, 11:34 a.m. Inappropriate

I know you clowns can't stand me leaving comments here, but I have a another wild suggestion that might change the situation, should you care to put away your pompous self-righteous attitude and think about it.

Here it is: Build a marine terminal in Longview to import Asian cars that shouldn't and possibly won't be off-loaded on a West Hayden Island marine terminal. Rail spur operations there is absurd.
Longview can accept Panamax freighters. The cost of routine dredging the Columbia Channel is reduced.

Hmm. Brain, what do you think? Brain answers, "Wells is a troll. Don't listen to him. We love our illustrious leaders who've told us the big tunnel job will not be a catastrophe. We trust well dressed transportation planning department secret elitists. Their computer slide show promised us a pretty beach and other entertainments to make up for their decades of unconscionable ineptitude."

Wells

Posted Fri, Aug 30, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Dr. McKay and Crosscut,

THIS is outstanding journalism. This article pulls together facts and points of view UNREPORTED by any other source(s).

VERY WELL DONE. McKays stuff on the oil and coal trains/export facilities is THE BEST STUFF GOING!!!

Kudos to ALL!!

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Fri, Aug 30, 12:30 p.m. Inappropriate

The price of coal is dropping - nearly 50% since 2011 when we were told this was going to be an economic winner. If the price of coal continues to drop, the whole project becomes a economic loser. Classic extraction-based economy - "Create jobs! Build infrastructure! The Asian market is BEGGING for this stuff! Until they're not because price/cost/environment/geography! Then screw Longview and everyone else with a coal terminal - have fun paying off that specialized, single use infrastructure we told you to build. It's officially your problem. JK about all those jobs too!"

I don't think we should put ourselves in that position in the first place. We're approaching the time when the market makes this a loser bet. Not government, not regulators, not environmentalists. The free, globalized market.

nullbull

Posted Fri, Aug 30, 12:49 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with Ross Kane that this really is an outstanding article, both for its depth of detail and for the simple fact that the weak signals from Longview aren't normally picked up by the antennas of Puget Sound intelligentsia.

I'm concerned that Washingtonians have been slow to learn the basic steps and moves to the newly popular Third World resource supplier dance. Everyone understands that resource exportation requires transportation infrastructure. When China goes to Africa to buy raw materials, part of the package is a commitment to built whatever transportation infrastructure is lacking. Why should we settle for less? At a minimum our wealthy Chinese benefactors should replace the SR 432 bridge. A hefty contribution to brownfield rehabilitation at the terminal site would also be nice.

woofer

Posted Fri, Aug 30, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Sure, and while we're at it, let's demand the Chinese pay for the externalized cost of burning all that coal. Oh, too much for anyone to pay? Even the Chinese government and people are starting to realize the costs of such near sighted decision making. See http://theenergycollective.com/guayjguay/260581/air-pollution-concerns-halt-enormous-coal-plant-china

louploup

Posted Wed, Sep 4, 12:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Yeah, let's tell China what to do. That's worked really well over the centuries, hasn't it?

NotFan

Posted Thu, Sep 5, 8:58 p.m. Inappropriate

You are: 1) deaf to sarcasm; 2) dense; or 3) rude. Or all three.

louploup

Posted Sun, Sep 8, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

The Chinese are just looking for a good deal on some crap coal. The real problem is Good Old American Greed and a stupid USA Government willing to allow our American Owned Natural Resources to be sold to the Chinese Communists. Will the unemployed people of Longview also decide to sell their poorly educated children to Chinese brothels if the price is right? You get a real good price for the white ones! Boys and girls too! Redhead hair real special, Big Money for you!!$$$$

Lancex

Posted Mon, Sep 9, 11:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Chinese State Capitalists (hasn't been very communistic for a long time).

louploup

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