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.
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The Cape Violet, a Capesize coal bulker built in 2009 and operating under Panamanian flag, recently stopped at Westshore Terminal south of Vancouver, B.C.

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 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.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.