Report on coal-by-rail project finds ‘adverse affects’ in majority of study areas

Millennium Bulk Terminals project would bring 16 mile-and-a-half-long coal trains through Camas, Washougal each day

An environmental report on the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal-by-rail project released last week has found “adverse impacts” in 19 of the 23 environmental study areas.

If the project is approved, Millennium Bulk Terminals will construct a coal export terminal on a 190-acre site in Longview, Washington. Trains, carrying coal from Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to the terminal, will bring 44 million metric tons of coal per year through Washington — and add 16 mile-and-a-half-long trains per day to rail lines passing through Washougal, Camas and Vancouver in Clark County.

The in-depth report, completed by Cowlitz County and the Washington Department of Ecology, relied on scientific methods, computer models and data to evaluate potential environmental impacts of the proposed coal-by-rail terminal. The report, known as the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) 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 opposing the project. In that resolution, signed by Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, the city council expressed concern 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.”

Following the FEIS’s release on Friday, April 28, Millennium Bulk Terminals sent a press release to media outlets, describing the report as “an important milestone” for the Longview coal-by-rail project.

“Today we are celebrating the completion of another strong step forward,” Chapman stated in the release. “This independent state study shows we can achieve our goals to bring more family-wage jobs to Longview while meeting the high standards for environmental protection in Cowlitz County and Washington State.”

Coal project supporters say environmental reviews taking too long, holding up job-creation

Opponents of the coal project have 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.

But Chapman argues that his company has taken great strides to help remedy potential environmental and health impacts.

“We have carefully designed the project to protect air and water quality, fish and wildlife, groundwater and people in accordance with regulatory requirements,” he stated.

Supporters of the project, including Lee Newgent, executive secretary of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades, say the environmental review process has gone on for far too long.

“These regulatory decisions have really become problematic,” Newgent said. “Our members support a clean environment — we live here and we want to keep our state green.”

But, Newgent added, pointing to the projected 2,950 jobs the project could bring to Cowlitz County, there is a limit to supporters’ environmental concerns.

“We also need jobs and the regulatory delay on this project is unheard of — more than five years now,” he said. “Dragging this out is not good for anyone. We have the strictest environmental regulations in the country. We have to find a way to balance jobs and the environment.”

Public interest remains strong, final 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.