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Climate Change & Rail Transport Will Be Included When Measuring Coal Export Project's Impact

The scope of the environmental impact of a proposed coal export terminal will include transporting coal by rail from Wyoming and Montana to the terminal near Beillingham, Wash.

The scope of the environmental impact of a proposed coal export terminal will include transporting coal by rail from Wyoming and Montana to the terminal near Beillingham, Wash.

Katie Campbell

A proposal to build the West Coast’s biggest coal export terminal will face stiff environmental scrutiny.

On Wednesday a joint release from the Washington Department of Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County, Wash. announced they will consider climate change, human health and the environment when it comes to a coal port near Bellingham, Wash. And they’ll look at the entire route from Western mines to coal-burning plants in Asia.

In other words, they will review not just the impact of building and running the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal itself, but of transporting coal by rail from Wyoming and Montana to northwestern Washington state, shipping it across Pacific waters, and burning it in Asia.

Advocates for the terminal said it’s unprecedented for regulators in Washington state to take such a broad approach.

“So initially, yes, it’s a disappointment and we weren’t hoping for this kind of an interpretation. But this does not mean that everything is over,” said Lauri Hennessey, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports.

In a statement before a congressional panel last month, an Army Corps official told lawmakers that under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) her agency will not be considering the area-wide effects of transporting coal, or the global impact of burning it in Asia.

The federal, state and local regulators took pains in their joint news release Wednesday to distinguish the Army Corps’ narrow look at local impacts and the Washington Department of Ecology’s decision to take a broad, regional approach.

The Army Corps’ focus during the upcoming review will be limited to local concerns like what the terminal could mean for nearby wetlands and shorelines, fish and wildlife, as well as a study of what vessel traffic will mean for the immediate area.

But under state law, regulators in Washington will cast a broader spotlight in the environmental review. Josh Baldi, Northwest regional director for the Department of Ecology, said it will include a “deep review” of the effects transporting rail through communities throughout Washington and outside the state –- from the Western mines and along the route through Montana and Idaho and along the Columbia River.

He said two other important areas of study will be the impact on human health –- presumably the potential effect of diesel emissions and coal dust from the daily run of nine full and nine empty coal trains -– as well as the greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions would result from transporting coal by train and ship and from the plants burning the coal in Asia.

Baldi said the public’s input was a factor in the decision to look broadly at the environmental impact of exporting coal to the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal. The public hearings process last fall and winter drew 125,000 public comments.

“We considered that as we set the scope for this environmental review,” Baldi said.

Coal opponents said Wednesday’s decision underscored the important role citizens played by speaking out by the thousands. Cesia Kearns, the campaign director for Power Past Coal, said it reflects “Northwest values” to consider coal trains throughout the region and the global impact of burning coal.

“I applaud Washington’s leadership for using the full scope of their authority to examine this project carefully and urge Oregon to do the same,” said Kearns, whose group is pushing for a similarly broad review of other export proposals in Oregon and Washington. “Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel by far and we need fully evaluate what coal export would cost Northwest communities.”

The review will take about two years. Baldi said the process could determine the fate of the proposed terminal.

“It is possible that projects can be denied. To my knowledge that’s extraordinarily rare that that has happened,” Baldi said.

At full capacity, the shipping terminal near Bellingham could export up to 48 million tons per year of coal. It could generate 18 train trips and lead to more than 18 deep-draft vessel trips per week. That’s what would be necessary to deliver coal from Wyoming and Montana to countries in Asia, where the coal would be burned to fire power plants.

The Gateway Pacific terminal is the biggest of three proposed in the Northwest. The two others would take coal via train to ports on the Columbia River — with facilities proposed for Boardman and Clatskanie, Ore. and in Longview, Wash.

(Click on markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)

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