Environmental report: ‘numerous’ adverse impacts from Millennium coal project

The report, released today by Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology, shows harm to 19 of 23 areas studied

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An environmental report on the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal-by-rail project released today has found “adverse impacts” to 19 of its 23 environmental study areas, and says the proposed coal terminal would “cause numerous impacts to the environment, local neighborhoods and transportation.”

The report is the final State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) environmental impact statement. Released by Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology on Friday, April 28, the report states that the coal-by-rail project would injure fish, pollute the air with greenhouse gas emissions and increase cancer risks to a neighborhood near the proposed terminal site in Longview, Washington.

If approved, the coal project would construct a coal export terminal on a 190-acre site in Cowlitz County, Washington. Trains would carry 44 million metric tons of coal per year from Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to the Cowlitz County terminal — adding 16 mile-and-a-half-long trains per day to the rail lines that pass through Washougal, Camas and Vancouver in Clark County.

The in-depth report relied on scientific methods, computer models and data to evaluate potential environmental impacts of the proposed coal-by-rail terminal. The report is not an official decision or permit for the project, but will be used by the agencies responsible for granting permits to the Millennium Bulk Terminals project.

According a the Department of Ecology press release sent to media outlets on Friday, some key findings of the report include:

  • An increase in locomotive diesel particulate matter, a toxic air pollutant, which “is expected to cause an unavoidable increase in cancer risk rates in a neighborhood along the rail line in Longview, (Washington);”
  • Traffic jams during peak commute times in Cowlitz County due to slow-moving trains;
  • And an increase in greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million metric tons due to the transporting, handling and burning the coal overseas.

“We spent the bulk of our time and effort really focusing on the potential impacts to the local community where impacts would be greatest,” Cowlitz County Building and Planning Director Elaine Placido stated in the press release.

The report also found that the “amount of coal dust deposited along train tracks and at the proposed terminal would not exceed air quality standards for human health.” That was one of the key concerns opined by several city councilors in Vancouver, when that city council passed its resolution against the proposed coal-by-rail terminal.

Washougal city leaders also passed a resolution in 2012 expressing concern about the project. In that resolution, signed by Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, the city council members said  they worried about the project’s local impacts to the Washougal community, including the potential for “increased traffic congestion and delays to residents and commerce and increased tailpipe emissions from stopped and idling vehicles … (and) potential impacts from coal dust and other particulates that may be blown from open rail cars.”

Company insists there are no health risks

At an all-day public hearing held Oct. 25, 2016 in Ridgefield, the coal terminal proponents and opponents argued over the safety and health risks of the proposed terminal, which would be the largest coal export terminal in North America.

Millennium’s CEO and president, Bill Chapman, said his company has been clear on the lack of health risks associated with the project.

“There are no health issues associated with this (project),” Chapman said at the October 2016  hearing. “The EIS and the federal (environmental impact statement) came to the same conclusion. People keep talking about it despite the fact that they’ve been shown it’s not an issue.”

Opponents, however, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Environmental Impact Statement ignored the impacts of the coal dust and rail traffic on Native American Indian tribes that fish along the Columbia River, upstream of the terminal, as well as the potential health risks to people living in communities along the rail lines, who will be subjected to coal dust, increased pollution from cars waiting for the 16 trains to pass each day and the diesel fumes from the trains themselves.

Opponents pointed to the fact that 62 elected officials, six Native American Indian tribes (including the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which has a reservation in Clark County), and several cities, including Vancouver, Portland, Seattle and Olympia, have submitted comments to Washington State’s Department of Ecology and to Cowlitz County expressing concerns about the coal export terminal potential to increased health and safety risks.

Federal environmental review due this year

The coal-terminal project has garnered extraordinary interest from the public.

“We received an unprecedented 267,000 comments,” Placido stated. “So it was clear to us that people are really interested in this project.”

The report’s authors also outline 30 steps that could help reduce environmental and health risks detailed in the report, including mitigation plans for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions and preventing adverse effects on wetlands near the project.

“This comprehensive study is now a resource for future decision-makers, the public and Millennium,” said Sally Toteff, director of the DOE’s Southwest Region. “The study will inform local, state and federal agencies that will be acting on Millennium’s permit application.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of pulling together the official federal Environmental Impact Statement for the Millennium coal terminal. That report is expected to be released later this year.