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Army Corps Says Climate Change, NW Region, Won't Be Part of Coal Export Reviews

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn speaks out against coal export terminals at a coal export hearing in Seattle in December, 2012.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn speaks out against coal export terminals at a coal export hearing in Seattle in December, 2012.

Michael Werner

Washington, D.C. — The federal agency in charge of approving Northwest coal export terminals delivered a setback for environmentalists, telling a congressional panel Tuesday morning that it will not be considering the area-wide effects of transporting coal, or the global impact of burning it in Asia.

The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the environmental review for the three terminals proposed for Washington and Oregon waterways. Together they could bring 100 million tons of coal a year to Asian markets from the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana.

“The appropriate application of our regulations have led us to the conclusion that the effects of the burning of the coal in Asia or wherever it may be is too far removed from our action to be considered as an indirect effect or a cumulative effect of our action itself,” The corps’ Jennifer Moyer told the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. Moyer is acting chief of the regulatory program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) pushed Moyer on the corps’ decision saying he thinks the corps is “making a big mistake” in not considering climate change in its review of the coal export facilities.

Congressmen from West Virginia and Kentucky commended the corps’ on their announcement.

The corps also announced that it will not conduct an area-wide environmental impact assessment. That would take into consideration the cumulative regional impacts of exporting coal through three proposed terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

Environmental groups, Indian tribes, and the governors of Oregon and Washington have made repeated calls for a comprehensive review of the proposed coal export terminals. They want greenhouse gas emissions to be part of that review.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is one of the most outspoken advocates for a region-wide environmental review that takes account of emissions from burning coal in Asia and is part of a group of more than 50 politicians and tribal leaders in the region, known as The Leadership Alliance Against Coal.. In his testimony before the subcommittee, he voiced concerns about the local impacts of moving coal through the region.

“Coal train traffic will clog the railroads,” McGinn said. “Coal dust and diesel exhaust from the engines pollute water and lungs. Neighborhoods along the rail line will see decreased quality of life and it will have significant negative transportation impacts.”

Harold Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, countered McGinn’s testimony, saying the proposed coal terminals are critical to connecting western mines with growing Asian markets and the review process should go forward as quickly as possible.

“Major risks are posed by timing and capital costs,” he argued. “This is why an efficient, timely and reliable process for reviewing permit applications are critical for ensuring these long term investments become a reality and bring enormous economic benefits locally and nationally.”

Coal exports have strong support from the Association for Washington Businesses, The Washington Farm Bureau, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports as well as several politicians and labor unions.

“Trade has been a key pillar of the Northwest economy for decades,” says Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports in response to the Mayor’s testimony. “Four out of ten jobs in Washington state depend on it. These projects will ensure Washington ports remain competitive.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is working with the Washington Department of Ecology to oversee the environmental review of the two largest coal export terminals.

However, the corps did not consult with the Department of Ecology before announcing that it will be limiting the scope of the environmental review.

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