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Longview coal port gets part of what it wants

Ambre Energy has proposed a coal port for this Longview site along the Columbia River. Credit: Floyd McKay

Ambre Energy ran into no red lights on its two Columbia River coal-export projects Wednesday, but the Australia-based company remains far from receiving the green light it hopes to achieve from regulators in Washington and Oregon.

The company’s coal-transfer project at Boardman on the Columbia, upriver from Portland, received three permits by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality but the same agency told Ambre it must also apply for a different certification of water quality. Opponents of the project said that requirement could kill the project.

On the Washington side of the river at Longview, a joint statement by Cowlitz County and the state Department of Ecology announced plans to begin drafting an environmental impact statement, but warned that it would be broad in its scope and could take into consideration train and vessel traffic from other proposed projects. Ambre is partnered with Arch Coal to develop Millennium Bulk Terminals at Longview.

As with the Oregon project, Millennium opponents were buoyed by the news. The scope is similar to that earlier announced for the Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham. In all of the regional coal-export proposals, opponents have generated public reaction unprecedented in regional environmental squabbles.

The Millennium review will coincide with the EIS review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT). There may be overlap in the studies, allowing the type of cumulative regional review opponents have sought.

Sally Toteff, director of Washington Ecology’s Southwest Region, told Crosscut, “We will look at cumulative impacts such as from trains from reasonably foreseeable [other] projects.  By 'reasonably foreseeable' we mean a project that has been proposed and is not speculative, for example, it has applied for permits. The GPT proposal has started its environmental review so it would be considered 'reasonably foreseeable' and we would include that information as part of our review. Information from the Gateway EIS can be incorporated into the Millennium EIS if available.” It is possible that oil-train impacts would also be included, Toteff added.

Both of the Washington projects' environmental reviews are expect to take up to two years; opponents have called for a cumulative study involving all coal-export proposals (and now oil trains as well), and this may be the closest to that comprehensive review that the region will get. Coal trains bound for Longview would not transit major Puget Sound cities and ships would not enter the Sound. But both Millennium and Gateway trains would increase rail traffic in Eastern Washington and the Columbia Gorge, as would oil trains bound for the Coast.

In Spokane, a hub for two major railways, City Council President Ben Stuckert said in a Power Past Coal news release, “Spokane has much to lose, and little to gain by allowing all these new coal trains through our town. Such an increase would harm our air quality, transportation systems, and emergency response. Today is a great step in the right direction for Spokane.”

Ambre has been pursuing coal exports from Columbia River ports for three years. The Longview project hit the rocks in 2011 when opponents turned up emails showing that the company had misled regulators on how much coal it would export. A year later, it filed applications to export 44 million tons a year, about the same volume as Gateway. The smaller project at Boardman would accept 8 million tons of coal a year, transfer it to Columbia River barges and then to Asia-bound ships at St. Helens, downriver from Portland.

The Boardman project — Morrow Pacific —was granted air- and water-quality permits and a stormwater construction permit Wednesday by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. But the agency also announced, “a further water quality certification — called a 401 certification — is appropriate for the project. DEQ is consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Ambre Energy on the next steps for this certification.” The certification covers projects that may create discharges of pollutants into any U.S. waters.

“Oregon’s 401 permit process has already worked to block the ill-fated Bradwood LNG terminal on the Columbia River, and I don't think coal's luck is going to be any better,” responded Michael O'Leary, of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement.

The 401 Certificate is a big deal, Columbia Riverkeeper Brett VandenHeuvel told Crosscut; in effect the DEQ could veto Ambre’s shipping dock, which also needs a Corps of Engineers permit. VandenHeuvel also noted that the Oregon Division of State Lands must issue a lease of public waters at Boardman and, he contends, at St. Helens as well. The division ultimately reports to the State Land Board, a venerable body made up of the governor, state treasurer and secretary of state. Gov. John Kitzhaber has been a major critic of coal exports.

Clark Mosely, Morrow Pacific CEO, said in a statement that, “By issuing these three permits after a rigorous process, the Department of Environmental Quality has affirmed that the project complies with environmental rules and regulations of the state of Oregon.” He expressed hope the facility will begin accepting coal in 2015.

Much the same pattern of conflicting claims of victory surfaced in the statements after the regulatory agencies released their statement on how they will review the impacts of the Millennium Bulk Terminals project. Terminal developers put on a good face and pledged to move ahead, opponents claimed the announcements favor their cause.

“This month marks the two year anniversary of submitting permits to invest over $600 million in a coal export terminal near Longview,” Millennium CEO Ken Miller said in a statement, “While we were hoping to be hiring hundreds of local, union contractors by now, we appreciate the support we received during the scoping process from the labor, agricultural and business communities throughout the state. We are pleased the co-lead agencies are moving forward with drafting an EIS.”

Gayle Kiser, a Longview activist, said in a Power Past Coal statement that the broad scope “reflects our Northwest values and common sense. The entire state of Washington, including Cowlitz County residents, would face impacts from coal export. Coal export would pollute our air and water, and halt the flow of traffic in our towns.” â€¨

More than 170,000 comments were received, mostly in opposition, as the agencies held public sessions on Millennium. The agencies noted that most comments appeared to be generated by organizations opposing the terminal.

Cowlitz County and Ecology cautioned, however, that the heaviest thrust of the environmental review will focus on the host county: “The most detailed analysis will be done on probable impacts within Cowlitz County. The study also will review and evaluate probable impacts in other parts of Washington state.” How this breaks down in practice will be up to the environment consultant, ICF Jones & Stokes Inc. of Seattle, working with the agencies.

The devil, of course, is always in the details, which won’t be known until the Draft EIS is released, perhaps in 2016. The will generate public hearings and, eventually, decisions by Cowlitz County and a bevy of state and federal bodies. Until that time, the process goes behind closed doors as the consultant and its subcontractors work through the science and impacts.

An attempt to bring some of those deliberations into the public arena was derailed Tuesday night in Bellingham, as the Whatcom County Council decided not to force the county executive, Jack Louws, to release details of a contract under review by Gateway Pacific, the county and Ecology, for the GPT environmental review. County lawyers cautioned that such an action could leave council members vulnerable to challenges that they were biased, leaving them ineligible to vote on the final permits. A similar form of sanitization will apply in Cowlitz County. Politics is never far from big public projects.

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