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Sizing Up Coal's Environmental Impact

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MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — People have been standing in line and taking numbers to get a chance to comment on a coal export terminal that could be built near Bellingham, Washington.

Commercial fisherman Rich Blanc was one of nearly a thousand people who attended a hearing in the nearby town of Mount Vernon.

“We’re trying to do what we can to get the environmental impact statement to be broadened to include to where the coal is mined in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, by train to Bellingham … and then to China,” Blanc said.

Rich Blanc

An environmental impact statement is supposed to uncover the ways a project could hurt people and their environment. Government officials are creating one for the export terminal near Bellingham.

It’s expected that as each of the region’s five proposed coal-shipping terminals arrives at the same permitting stage the Bellingham-area project has reached, regulators will follow suit: determining the environmental impact of that facility on its immediate surroundings.

They could do more than that. A federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act, allows environmental studies to reach beyond a single project.

Hundreds of people would like to see regulators produce one big environmental impact statement that covers all the export projects. Companies for three of the projects have applied for various permits from a mix of state, local and federal regulators.

Two companies, Mitsui and Metro Ports, also have been in discussions about exporting coal through Coos Bay, Ore. And developers are looking for a way to ship coal by train to the Port of St. Helens near Clatskanie.

Many people — including the Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Oregon and Washington legislators, mayors and residents from some cities and towns along the rail routes, members of environmental groups — want that big study to look at the impact of trains covering hundreds of miles as they pass through Eastern Washington and work their way to the export terminals.

More Meetings

On Cherry Point proposal near Bellingham:

  • Ferndale, Wash., Nov. 29, 3-7 p.m.
  • Spokane, Wash., Dec. 4, 4-7 p.m.
  • Vancouver, Wash., Dec. 12, 4-7 p.m.
  • Seattle, Dec. 13, 4-7 p.m.

Click here for more details.

On the Columbia River/Coyote barging proposal:

  • Boardman, Ore., Dec. 4, 6 p.m.
  • Clatskanie, Ore., Dec. 5, 6 p.m.
  • Portland, Dec. 6, 6 p.m.

Click here for more details.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the director of Washington’s Department of Ecology have called for a regional environmental study of the coal export projects.

David Gesl with the Northwest District of the Army Corp of Engineers says a regional study usually is restricted to a single watershed and to the activities the Army Corps regulates.

“We don’t regulate rail traffic. We’re regulating the discharge of fill into the waters of the United States as well as the structures themselves for it. So the connection has to be between those actions rather than the larger more distantly related activities,” he says.

Gesl says Army Corps leaders in the Northwest could ask for a regional study. Approval would have to come from the Army Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Army Corps and the Washington Department of Ecology have scheduled meetings to collect public comments for their environmental study of the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

EarthFix reporter Katie Campbell contributed to this story.

(Hover over 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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