The coal port issue is spreading all over the Northwest

With a new contender, on the Columbia River near Boardman, joining the parade, those concerned about widespread impacts are pushing for a comprehensive EIS process that will sweep lots of towns and politicians into an epic debate.

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Shipping coal to Asia has become a major business in Canada.

With a new contender, on the Columbia River near Boardman, joining the parade, those concerned about widespread impacts are pushing for a comprehensive EIS process that will sweep lots of towns and politicians into an epic debate.

If all the planned coal-export terminals actually get built, a lot of mile-long coal trains spewing coal dust from uncovered rail cars will rumble through cities and towns — not to mention the Columbia Gorge — all the way from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to deepwater ports on the lower Columbia River, in Puget Sound, in Grays Harbor, in the Georgia Strait, and on the Oregon Coast. Maybe they won't all get built. Who knows? The whole may be equal to the sum of its parts, but it will certainly be greater than any single part.

One of four entrants in this sweepstakes that have actually reached the permitting stage is a proposed facility at the Port of Morrow, on the Columbia River at Boardman, Oregon. This one would handle only up to 8.8 million tons a year. That's huge, but only part of a process that would move up to 150 million tons annually through the rail towns of the Pacific Northwest.

The impact of all those trains going to all those terminals — and of all that coal going up all those smokestacks in east Asia — will be cumulative. Therefore, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and citizens groups who oppose the construction of coal terminals argue, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers a permit application for a coal storage and transfer facility at the Port of Morrow, it should do a "cumulative-impacts analysis."

Just consider all that is involved, if all goes according to corporate plan. Powder River Basin coal will be unloaded from trains at Morrow, loaded onto barges, barged downriver to St. Helens, which lies just downstream from the mouth of the Willamette River, loaded onto big Panamax freighters, and shipped across the Pacific to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Coyote Island Terminal, a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, the same Australian-owned company whose Millennium Bulk Logistics subsidiary wants to build a (much larger) coal facility at Longview, has applied for the permit. The company says the whole storage and conveying operation would be enclosed, so no coal or coal dust would reach the air or water. However, an Oregon legislator speaking on behalf of Ambre has said that of the eight coal terminals proposed for Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, Morrow's is the only one at which storage and loading would be fully enclosed.

Be that as it may, the company still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build things in the navigable waters of the Columbia. The Corps says the project would involve "nine dolphins, walkways, a fixed dock, and a conveyor system for loading coal along with enclosed warehouses in the uplands for storing coal prior to loading onto the barges. Approximately 140 permanent piles ranging from 14 to 24 inches in diameter and 110 temporary 16-inch diameter piles would be installed to complete the project. Over 15,000 square feet of new overwater structure would be constructed."

One can analyze the discrete contribution of this and every other coal export terminal in isolation. But that terminal won't operate in isolation. Therefore, under the National Environmental Policy Act, as the Corps assesses the environmental impact of each terminal, it can't just view the project in isolation; rather, it must see the project in the context of all the other projects currently on the drawing board.

In an April letter, Kate Kelly, the EPA Region 10 director of the Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs, has therefore urged the Corps to undertake "a thorough and broadly-scoped cumulative impacts analysis of exporting large quantities of Wyoming  and Montana-mined coal through the west coast of the United States to Asia."

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, writing to the Corps on behalf of Climate Solutions, Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Greenpeace, Columbia Riverkeeper, Coos Waterkeeper, Washington Conservation Voters, and RE Sources, has suggested a broad look, too. "[W]hile the Corps and other agencies will be required to consider the impacts of rail traffic on human health, traffic, and other system users in the context of individual projects," Hasselman wrote, "we believe that the cumulative impacts of the various coal terminals should be evaluated in a single comprehensive programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS)... Such a process will allow explicit consideration of the collective impacts of multiple distinct decisions."

Kelly stresses that the decision is the Corps', and that there is no bright-line rule for how broad a cumulative-impact analysis must be. Should the Corps analyze the total impact on Decker, Montana and Buffalo, Wyoming?  Should it parse the nuances of burning varying percentages of the coal in Japan versus burning it in Korea or Taiwan or mainland China? Surely, looking at the prospect of shipping 150 million tons a year makes it easier to argue that by increasing the supply, the U.S. would drive down the price and thereby increase demand, making coal a more attractive fuel. On the other hand, looking at the whole picture makes it easier to find significant economic benefit, far beyond the 25 jobs at the Port of Morrow.

Kelly explains that the Corps doesn't have to include any specific range of geography or events. But it does have to consider developments that are "reasonably foreseeable." Failure to consider reasonably foreseeable events is the main reason the 9th Circuit has rejected cumulative impact analyses. So don't bet against this one — or its absence — winding up in court.

Hasselman has certainly suggested some of the specifics. Writing to the Corps, he explained that "we are asking you to conduct a PEIS on those environmental and economic effects of the various projects that are similar, connected or cumulative. These shared impacts include rail traffic and emissions; ocean-going vessel traffic and emissions; increased mining; national coal supply and pricing; and air-borne mercury deposition in the Northwest and GHG emissions associated with increased combustion of coal." He concluded that "No decisions on the permit applications should be made until the PEIS is completed."

Obviously, doing a single cumulative analysis would be more efficient. But, Hasselman argues, it's not just a matter of efficiency.  A programmatic EIS would also be more likely to capture the attention of people who live far from the ports but close to the rails. They would be affected by the traffic but might not realize they should comment on a proposal to drive pilings into a river bed. If you live in Spokane, will you pay attention to a permit for the Port of Morrow? 

And yet, Hasselman argues, "decisions in Bellingham and St. Helens have an impact on communities far away." He notes that in some Columbia Gorge communities, "the rail lines run literally through the middle of downtown." That might mean a steady procession of mile-long trains creeping through the crossings with gates down and lights flashing and no way for a driver or pedestrian — or an emergency vehicle — to get from one side of town to the other. "If you're one of these little towns that is built on opposite sides of the tracks and those crossings are going to be down half the time," Hasselman asks, "what does that do" to the community?

The Yakama Nation certainly has ideas about what a steady procession of long coal trains would do to its traditional homeland. The Yakamas advocate looking at cumulative impacts, too. "[U]ntil the cumulative impacts of all planned coal-transportation projects in Washington and Oregon have been identified and analyzed, including the impacts sustained from the burning of coal by its end user," Philip Rigdon, the deputy director of the Yakama Nation's department of natural resources, has written to the Oregon Department of State Lands, "and until the federal government consults with the Yakama Nation on a government-to-government level, no government should make any decisions that would allow the commencement of this project."

While Rigdon's letter calls for the procedural steps of environmental review and nation-to-nation negotiation, it doesn't pretend that the Yakamas will wait to make up their minds. "[T]he purpose [of] the proposed Coyote Island Terminal is completely inconsistent with the vast regional investment in restoring the fish and wildlife resources devastated by human development of the Columbia Basin," Rigdon writes. It suggests that "anyone with an interest in ensuring a legacy for future generations 'through sound stewardship' of lands must conclude that progress here means putting an end to this concerted effort to fundamentally transform and degrade the Columbia Basin."

The more people focus on cumulative impact, the more skeptics and outright opponents are likely to speak up — and the higher the political level at which the issue becomes hard to dodge. Coal shipments haven't become a major statewide issue in either Washington or Oregon yet, and even the pro-environment Democratic candidate for Washington governor, Jay Inslee, has so far only called for more studies of the proposed Bellingham coal port, but not taken a stand. Oregon's Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Ron Wyden have already expressed some reservations about their state becoming a westward conduit for Powder River Basin coal.

How long can Washington's leaders and would-be leaders stay on the sidelines?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.