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.

Crosscut archive image.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.

Local Longview leaders are trying to transition to an economic base that's less dependent on big-payroll companies. Those days are gone, says Ted Sprague, who heads the local economic development agency. Instead, Longview needs to attract health services, technology and small industry. Problem is the city has an education gap; only 14 percent of Longview adults graduated from college, far below the state average.

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Port opponents John and Margaret Green. Photo Credit: Floyd McKay

Unlike Longview, Bellingham has made the transition, with help from Western Washington University, to a large health industry and a revitalized downtown. The city is a regular on “top places” lists; Bellingham is “happening,” Longview is hoping for something to happen.

But Bellingham's gateway proposal faces some big obstacles. Allthough the property is zoned for heavy-industry, the site is relatively pristine with important wetlands and a critical shoreline. It includes the state’s only aquatic reserve and Gateway's owners must get clearance from the state's Commissioner of Public Lands before their project can go forward.

Aside from environmentalists, Gateway faces serious opposition from the Lummi Nation, an opposition bolstered by court rulings on “usual and customary” fishing rights and cultural resources. Influential and vocal opponents in the San Juan Islands spotlight marine issues vital to the iconic islands. Native rights and environmental threats could halt GPT. No such danger is likely at MBT.

Indeed, ecologically, economically and politically, Millennium seems to have a stronger chance at approval. Cowlitz County politicians and business leaders seem welcoming, despite those looming “432 Mess” problems.

With 36,658 residents, Longview is the largest city between Olympia and Vancouver. But population growth in the last three decades has been stagnant and the median age of nearly 40 years is very high for an industrial town. That certainly wasn’t the case when Kansas City timber baron R.A. Long founded Longview in the “Roarin’ Twenties,” a decade that really did roar in the Cowlitz County woods.

In 1918, Long bought 70,000 acres from fellow timber mogul Frederick Weyerhaeuser, who had amassed enormous timber holdings. In Kelso, skookum logger R. H. Barr was harvesting trees like mad and the town of 2,000 allegedly supported 20 taverns.

Long was more respectable and farsighted than Barr. He built Longview on a flat, swampy open space, carefully laying out a grid similar to Washington D.C., with industrial space on the Columbia a good distance residential neighborhoods. But the city’s first economic boom had started to fade before the Great Depression knocked it flat. The downturn defeated Bob Barr, who stubbornly refused to fire his loggers until his operation collapsed. (A Barr grand-daughter, my wife inherited some great stories, but not much else.)

R. A. Long died in 1934. Long's company and Weyerhaeuser barely survived to enjoy the city's second industrial renaissance during World War II and its aftermath. Longview’s population nearly tripled between 1930 and 1970.

Only Weyerhaeuser remains today, the big employer (with Longview Fibre) on a waterfront where Reynolds Metals once employed 960 blue collar workers and where Millennium aspires to ship coal.

Cowlitz County commissioners embarrassed themselves in November 2010 when they quickly approved a shoreline permit for Millennium only to find out that Millennium had lied to them. Instead of a modest 5.7 million tons of coal, the company had a secret plan to ship as much as 60 million tons. That disclosure prompted the county to have its hearings examiner, Chehalis attorney Mark Scheibmeir, make the decision on the new shoreline application Millenium filed a year later. (Commissioners won't cast a vote. Scheibmeir's ruling can be appealed to the state Shoreline Hearings Board.)

Millennium’s new CEO, Ken Miller, seems to have overcome most of the distrust, but the project has some other nagging problems. The terminal’s 62 percent partner, Ambre Energy of Australia, has substantial financial issues. Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry, who has doggedly pursued Ambre’s finances, doubts that the company can afford the long slog toward approval. (His view was reinforced on Aug. 28 when a complex deal with Cloud Peak Energy was aborted.) But Millennium’s 38 percent partner, Arch Coal, is an industry leader with deeper pockets. And if the terminal can get a permit or if it appears likely to get one, more buyers could appear overnight.

Miller’s next task is to avoid the sweeping environmental review that was imposed on GPT, particularly the requirement that the review assess the impact on global warming of the GPT-shipped coal that will be burned in Asia. That kind of environmental impact is beyond Millennium’s ability to mitigate. But Miller knows that the community will demand other kinds of mitigation if Millenium wins approval.

That “432 Mess,” for example. Local taxpayers can’t afford a $200 million fix. State and federal budgets are tight too. Studies pre-dating Millennium validate Gary Lindstrom’s "nightmare" concerns, but neither the studies nor Millennium backers have a plan for funding the necessary mitigations. It may be time to talk about that elephant in the room. 

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly attributed Millenium's 2010 secret plan to Joe Cannon, who did not become CEO of Millennium until after the plan memo was written. His name has been removed from the story. We apologize for the mistake.


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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.